In the western Wisconsin community of Holmen, just north of La Crosse, fifth-graders from Evergreen Elementary recently chimed in on the debate over where – and if – the Badger-Coulee transmission line should be built.
The students' concerns, voiced in letters written for a class research project, ranged from playground safety (one child worried that kickballs couldn't be retrieved from a "no-man's land" near the 345-kilovolt line) to the loss of nearby pine trees that help define the school.
The class letters, an admirable exercise in getting kids to think about something other than the next download of "Clash of Clans," illustrate how hard it can be to build high-voltage power lines in Wisconsin. These location battles are typically a clash of two different clans – the NIMBYs and the Straight-Line Engineers.
The Not-In-My-Back-Yard contingent usually worries most about the aesthetics, safety and property value threat of power lines passing through their neighborhoods. The Straight-Line Engineers are often concerned with finding the most cost-effective, direct route for lines that naturally lose energy the longer they traverse the countryside.
As the state Public Service Commission weighs the pros and cons of the Badger-Coulee line, another factor may rule over both clans: The need to wean Wisconsin from its coal habit.
Wisconsin is still among the most coal-dependent states in the United States, even though state utility companies are trying to meet deadlines for alternative energy production from wind and solar power and relying more on natural gas to generate electricity.
A recent report by the PSC shows coal now makes up 51 percent of Wisconsin's energy mix, down from 63 percent two years ago. Meanwhile, use of natural gas has doubled from 9 percent two years ago to 18 percent in the latest analysis. The assessment also found Wisconsin is "well on its way" to meeting its goal of having 10 percent of its energy generated by renewable sources by next year.
The need to retire or clean up coal plants will become even more intense if the Obama administration succeeds in requiring a 30 percent cut in carbon emissions by coal-fired plants over time. It's an attempt to counter global climate change, as well as other health and environmental risks tied to burning coal.
Industry in Wisconsin and elsewhere has reacted strongly to the mandate, claiming it will raise energy prices and kill jobs in a fragile economy.
However, most utility companies already view more stringent carbon dioxide limits as inevitable. In fact, it's unlikely another coal-fired plant will ever be built in the United States. That means finding alternatives in an era when Wisconsin's nuclear power plants face an uncertain future (one has already shut down) and using natural gas remains a price-sensitive option.
That brings us back to that kickball-eating Badger-Coulee line.
For years, Wisconsin was pretty much an energy island when it came to electrical power: Very few high-voltage lines carried power into the state from outside its borders. Badger-Coulee is an attempt by American Transmission Co. and a larger Midwest transmission network to enhance reliability and gain access to electricity produced elsewhere, which reduces the need for new plants in Wisconsin.
Badger-Coulee would largely transmit electrons produced by wind power farms in Minnesota and the Dakotas. It would also reduce congestion in the existing network and provide utilities with greater access to the wholesale electricity market, which would help control the rates consumers pay.
While some environmentalists oppose Badger-Coulee or some of its proposed routes, others support the plan, saying Wisconsin could do a lot worse than import a renewable resource such as wind power to ease out coal. One such group is the Coalition Organized for Reliable Energy, which includes businesses, labor and trade associations.
The costs of burning coal are hard to ignore. They include the routine deaths of miners around the world to costly transportation accidents to human health risks, ranging from premature births to particulates that cause respiratory troubles. A typical coal-fired plant releases 100 times more radioactive material than an equivalent nuclear reactor – straight into the air, not into a guarded and enclosed storage site.
Importing electricity generated by wind farms to the west should be part of a Wisconsin energy portfolio that reduces coal use over time. Few people want a power line to be built near their homes and schools, but providing safe, reliable power for all of Wisconsin shouldn't be a political kickball.
-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.