Town chairs from Vernon, Juneau and Sauk counties succeeded last week in slowing down a bill concerning transmission line approval being considered by the Wisconsin legislature.
The Senate committee vote on the bill, SB35, originally scheduled Feb. 28, two days after its Feb. 26 public hearing, has been postponed until later in March at a date to be announced. Meanwhile its companion bill, AB39, was to be considered, with suggested amendments, by the Assembly March 5.
The bill would streamline the review process for high voltage transmission lines, reducing public and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) participation. In addition, it would give American Transmission Company (ATC), created by the state legislature in 1999, expanded market powers.
Utility and transmission companies say the legislation is housekeeping. But Town of Stark chairman Brad Steinmetz, La Valle chair Beverly Vaillancourt and town of Lyndon Station president David Klicko questioned its intent and why supporters appear to be fast-tracking it. The town of Stark’s Energy Planning and Information Committee (EPIC), Save Our Unique Lands (SOUL) and Citizens Energy Task Force (CETF) joined in voicing their concern.
“Do we fully understand how SB35 will limit the rights of municipalities, the DNR and even state regulators,” the town chairs asked in an email to members of the Senate committee on Government Operations, Public Works and Telecommunications before the Feb. 26 public hearing.
“Since the mid-90s when the Advance Plan for energy was eliminated in this state, the Legislature has tweaked laws to decrease ratepayers’ participation, thereby greasing the skids for transmission companies’ proposals,” EPIC co-chair Joan Kent testified, contending the bill goes further in the wrong direction.
Representatives of the Citizens Utility Board (CUB), Wisconsin Farmers Union, and Save our Unique Lands (SOUL) also testified against the bill and questioned its fast tracking.
“ATC is keeping up the tradition of poor communication with constituents,” said committee member Sen. Robert Wirch, Pleasant Prairie, reporting that municipalities had not been informed of the bill.
Under current law, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) must submit copies of a transmission company’s application, which includes its final route proposals, to affected municipalities within 10 days after the application if filed. The bill would change the notification requirement to 10 days after the PSC determines the application is complete. The concerned parties contend this would make it more challenging for local governments and other interested parties to comment to the PSC while the application is in progress.
The bill would remove a requirement for a company proposing a high capacity transmission line to submit a detailed project plan to the DNR at least 60 days before the public information phase is complete. “The utilities are correct that this bill would attempt to clean up some leftover inconsistencies in our laws,” EPIC member Rob Danielson testified. “But current and proposed legislation lack checkpoints in the review process for the DNR to minimize negative impacts should the high voltage transmission option be selected. Our law must require ATC and the DNR to share information during the first 24 months of the review process as potential corridors are being narrowed down. This is when the DNR and ATC agree that interaction is the most productive, yet laws allow the fate to rely on voluntary and arbitrary communications at these critical stages.”
The bill also would enable ATC to buy and lease transmission rights and profits on transmission lines it does not own anywhere in the U.S. “This allows us to get involved in projects outside Wisconsin in a more profitable way,” American Transmission Company senior local relations representative Charles Gonzales said during the Monroe County Exploring Regional Economic Opportunities 2013 meeting in Sparta last Thursday.
Danielson expressed concern that, considering ATC’s high profile in the utility marketplace and its status as a government-sanctioned company, the expanded power could create conflicts of interest and impede fair competition. “This part of the proposed bill should be removed until the impacts of these contracts with utilities and associated ratepayers across the U.S. can be fully analyzed by third-party financial experts,” he suggested to the Senate committee.
Committee member Sen. Jennifer Shilling, La Crosse, asked bill sponsor Sen. Paul Farrow, Pewaukee, committee chairman, several questions and said she was concerned “at the rate of speed of this bill.” Sometimes this legislature is criticized for moving too slowly but this seemed to be moving too quickly, she said. Shilling requested amendments that deal with aspects of the bill including notification of municipalities, which were to be considered at the March 5 Assembly committee public hearing.