The Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) gave unanimous preliminary approval Tuesday for a transmission line to bring up to 25 GW of renewable energy capacity from Iowa to Wisconsin.
The three-member commission, two Republican appointees and one Democrat, broadly agreed that the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission project is needed to ensure reliability and bring multi-gigawatt wind capacity additions in the Great Plains to market. Further regulatory decisions are expected in the coming months for the project, which the PSC estimates will cost about $492 million.
The decision follows heated debate as developers, renewable energy advocates and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), argued with land conservation groups, local governments and intervenors over whether the renewable energy access and reliability benefits could be met by less disruptive and destructive means. The line would cross Wisconsin's geologically- and culturally-significant Driftless Area, and opponents of the project asked regulators to upgrade existing transmission facilities instead.
The Wisconsin PSC's decision is a win for the project developers — the American Transmission Company, ITC Transmission, and Dairyland Power Cooperative — as well as renewable energy advocacy groups. It reflects the commission's belief that importing wind from Iowa will benefit Wisconsin ratepayers, despite changes to the landscape.
"Getting low-cost, clean energy from where it is plentiful in the west to where it is needed, and at the scale that it is needed, cannot be done without building transmission infrastructure," PSC Chairwoman Rebecca Cameron Valcq said in a statement. "I support this project because I firmly believe that it will provide tangible economic and reliability benefits to Wisconsin customers, and will serve as the cornerstone to achieving a zero-carbon future."
The commission was careful to acknowledge local opposition and alternatives proposed by experts.
Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff testified that alternative options should be fully evaluated before a decision on the line is made, on behalf of conservation nonprofits like the Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC) and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
"I... understand and sympathize with those who live in and love the Driftless Area and the Mississippi River Valley. I am a lifelong resident of this area; I've raised a family there," Commissioner Mike Huebsch said in his comments.
However, Huebsch was not persuaded that the project's goals could be met effectively by alternative means.
"The most compelling argument [against the line] was the upgrade of the current transmission facilities, and I think it was very well argued… However… [it] wouldn't give us the long-term benefits that we were going to receive from the 345 [kV] line," Huebsch said.
Huebsch also emphasized the "remarkable" amount of new renewable energy capacity — 25 GW — for which the line could provide an outlet, a possibility which "makes the project worth considering" even at a maximum cost of $560 million, he said.
Valcq also described the challenge of choosing between impacts on landowners, current utility customers, and future residents of the state.
"To say that this is an important or a difficult decision is quite honestly the understatement of the year," Valcq said during the meeting. "I share MISO's belief that this transmission line is critical for our energy future in our state and the region."
As energy generation in the U.S. undergoes rapid change away from fossil fuels and toward renewables, Valcq said, an "all-of-the-above" approach that includes out-of-state transmission is needed to deliver the clean energy that utilities and consumers are calling for.
The PSC's decision was welcomed by renewable energy advocacy groups.
"We are grateful to the Commission for recognizing that more transmission is necessary in order to deliver the clean energy future everyone wants," Beth Soholt, executive director of the Clean Grid Alliance, said in a statement. "Cardinal-Hickory Creek will also strengthen the grid and provide congestion relief for an efficient energy market in Wisconsin and the surrounding states."
Opponents said they were surprised and frustrated.
"[The Citizens Utility Board] continues to believe that time has passed this project by, given advances in technology that have brought down the cost of alternatives such as solar and storage," Tom Content, executive director of the ratepayer watchdog, said in a statement.
"I thought we won on the merits of the case," Dave Clutter, DALC's executive director, told the Wisconsin State Journal. "It's a little shocking."
The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, with DALC, was a major intervenor and aggregator of expert testimony against the line. The organization will continue to fight the line, in court if necessary, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Although the Wisconsin commission's preliminary approval is a significant step toward project construction, regulatory hurdles remain, providing hope for Cardinal-Hickory Creek's opponents.
The Wisconsin PSC's counterpart across the Mississippi River, the Iowa Utilities Board, will rule on the case in December.
Federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make determinations about the project and its environmental impacts next year.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Jon Wellinghoff's position. The former commissioner testified that alternatives should be fully vetted before a decision is made.