WUA: Hanging by a Thread?

If the recent heatwave didn’t convince people that we need to strengthen our electric transmission system then nothing short of a blackout will.  Electricity consumption records were knocked down and re-set like bowling pins with startling regularity during the extreme heat and nearly every utility in the state publicly appealed to its customers to conserve. 


Providers routinely invoked their interruptible contracts, asking large users to shut down during peak periods and every available power plant in the state was, at some point, running at capacity to meet customer demand. 


So it was only by some very good fortune that the same lightning storm that knocked out two major generating units in Wausau missed the only 345 kilovolt (kV) power line connecting Wisconsin to key generating sources to the west; we are equally fortunate that it didn’t strike a day earlier when local electricity use was even higher.  While it is true that Wisconsin’s electric generating capacity was enough to serve customers, and then some – Wisconsin was actually a net exporter of electricity earlier this week – the transmission grid was barely sufficient to move electrons from where they were made to where they were needed and it was recognized again as one of the nation’s largest bottlenecks.  Every power plant operator and system operator in the state knew this.  But since our air conditioners kept humming along most people were unaware of how close we were to power outages.  If the transmission system wasn’t exactly hanging by a thread, it was at most hanging by the width of a 345 kV cable.  Had that transmission line become overloaded and tripped out or been struck by lightning much of central Wisconsin could have gone dark.


The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has named Wisconsin’s transmission system the second-most constrained in the U.S.   That is why the American Transmission Company, the utility which operates most of the high-voltage power lines in the state, is constructing a second 345 kV line to the west, from Wausau to Duluth, and has proposed further high-voltage upgrades in east central Wisconsin and in Dane County. 


Such projects are always controversial and citizens should exercise their right to be heard at the public hearings that will be held by the Public Service Commission.  But while doing so, they should also exercise their best judgment about the reality of our energy situation.  Dane County imports over 70% of its power and major transmission upgrades are needed to ensure a reliable energy supply.  The least cost, most environmentally and aesthetically benign proposal would utilize right of way on the beltline corridor which already is highly developed.  At a time when energy costs are soaring, from what we pay at the pump to natural gas prices for home heating and electric generation, the beltline alternative is one scenario in which least-cost makes most-sense.