Local Government Responses to High Voltage Transmission Proposals
During the Initial, “Public Information Meetings” Phase in Wisconsin
by Rob Danielson, Town of Stark Committee on Energy-Planning and Information
-- Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) policy addressing likely differences in priorities
between public interests and those of transmission line developers in proposing Extreme
High Voltage (EHV) projects in Docket 137-CE-100 March, 2006 [1*]
Key is the directive to "CPCN applicants" (transmission line builders) to provide
“substantial, objective, public education.”
Accessing Timely, Objective Information
Concerns about negative impacts on local economies, land values, environmental degradation and the enormous scale and unsightliness of extreme high voltage transmission systems are well-founded, but worries that local governments find it difficult to participate in decision-making process is becoming a greater concern. Recent experiences with the CapX2020 and Badger-Coulee proposals suggest that the Wisconsin Public Service Commission is not insuring that “substantial, objective, public education” about the need for these EHV projects and the accompanying low-voltage and efficiency options is being provided. One, documented example is the developer’s unwillingness to provide objective data and substantive discussion about the benefits claimed in the literature mailed to potentially impacted citizens. [2*]
Without access to objective information, local governments can be prevented from making educated comments during the time provided. Once the transmission builder’s application is submitted to the PSC, the ability to obtain answers to questions is usually restserve for Public Intervenors required to sign non-disclosure statements. For public dialog about need and options to be effective, it must occur before the developer’s application is submitted.
How can a private developer empowered to condemn land be less than fully-responsive to questions citizens and landowners about need? In the late 1990’s, Wisconsin law changes reduced the amount of preliminary review that could be conducted by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission before a high voltage transmission project could be taken to the public. Elected officials to this day are largely unaware that the PSC requires only a schematic description of high-voltage transmission projects before mailings can be sent to citizens living within 1000' of potential corridors. Uncertainties about the seriousness of these mailings from a private company linger because no official government announcement is sent to accompany them.
The current permitting process astutely provides about two years for local governments and citizens to study the proposal and its claims during the initial “Public Information Meetings” phase. Unfortunately, state laws do not seem to stipulate what information the developer is required to provide citizens and local governments over that time period. In the resulting vacuum, the developer holds “Open Houses” which are essentially presentations of maps of potential corridors. Visitors are encouraged to anonymously mark NIMBY paths for a transmission line with stickers and engage staff persons verbally. It is unclear how or if the PSC requires these subjective opinions about corridor location be accounted for in the developer’s application. The conversations, which can be more telling of citizen questions and concerns, go undocumented. The net effect is citizens walk away under-whelmed by the lack of substance—especially if they came to learn specific about "need" such as projected demand, state grid reliability, less costly fixes and whether efficieny measures will be thoroughly explored.
Unless other actions are taken, this, initial two year long period can pass without local governments receiving the substantive information-- information they require to provide comments that can influence the developer’s application and subsequent phases.
The Town of Stark formed an ad hoc committee to try to answer the large number of questions the Town Board was receiving. The committee sought advice from local governments in Wisconsin and other states where communities had been approached with similar high voltage transmission proposals. We learned that local governments in areas where the evaluation reached higher standards had employed the use of Resolutions. These Resolutions use traditional “whereas” statements describing the potential negative impacts and resolve that public expectations for explanations of need and traditional public hearings exist. These resolutions are written and implemented during the initial information phase of the proposal process.
Reference Resolutions and other resources currently in use by local governments during the "Public Meeting Information" phase in Wisconsin may be found here.
Requesting Meetings With the Developer During Public Information Phase
One, direct way to improve public participation is to prepare a list of questions and invite the developer to address them either in writing or in-person. If the latter, set aside at least two hours to allow for follow-up questions and record this meeting on video. Its very useful for citizens to be able to refer to the document for further study and accuracy. Such meetings can be requested at any time during the public information phase, but the earlier they occur, the more time there is for analyzing the information and asking follow-up questions.
Local Government Responses that can reduce powers to negotiate and influence energy-related priorities and policies.
While local governments are appropriately concerned about negative impacts, attempting to encourage the PSC or the developer to favor certain corridor options during the Public Information Meetings phase increases liabilities. The location of the final transmission corridor is determined towards the end of the legal process which is overseen by an Administrative Law Judge. Subjective preferences about corridor location hold little or no weight in such decisions. It is possible that the Judge would prevent statements concerning corridor preference from entering the legal proceedings until final corridor options have made and based on other grounds. A
If, in the process of evaluating impacts, local governments notice shared advantages with certain routes, these recognitions can have value at the right time. Asking the PSC or the developer to consider preferences during the Public Information Meeting phase can reduce negotiation options and increase tensions between constituents and other local governments, unnecessarily. Stating corridor preference during the Public Information Meeting phase can be interpreted as implying the high voltage solution is needed. A local government’s influence is enhanced by the ability to participate in crucial arguments about need and perhaps support less obtrusive options like low voltage upgrades or efficiency-only options that could be more advantageous to the community [3*].
Local governments cannot assume that the transmission line builder has legally restricted its corridor options to locations that were sketched-out during the Public Information Meeting phase. More than two possible routes can be included in the final application and often are. Early corridor preference can stir-up feelings between local governments who could be work togethering towards common goals. The public information phase is the time to obtain information, ask follow-up questions about all options, not to reach decisions about where a high voltage line, if deemed necessary, should be located.
Multiple Benefits of Task Sharing
Resolutions promote local government awareness and cooperation throughout the two year long Public Information Meetings phase. The self-education involved is invaluable in understanding the proposal, becoming aware of the most concerning negative impacts, learning about the options your local government supports and entering the application phase with purpose, not just waiting to react.
County map specialists can prepare detailed maps of their counties for all government bodies to use in identifying the local sensitivites for their Resolutions. Close-ups from the County map can be easily made that show locations where sensitive envvironmental and cultural resources intersect with potential corridors. The County can include, wetlands, State Natural Areas, outstanding/excellent water resources, Archeological Districts, rivers and trout streams, dam impacted flood pools, County & State Parks, County & National Forests, Managed Forestl Land, DNR Managed Lands, Snowmobile Trails, Bike Trails, Municipal boundaries & Parks, Schools, Hospitals, Airports and Cemeteries that are located within 1500 feet of the borders of the usual 3000' wide path that the developer has stated they might apply to build within. Locations of Organic and Amish Farms can be determined by asking cooperatives and Amish leadership. It is suggested that towns and muncipalties announce a meeting to work with land and business owners to create a list businesses and other activities that rely heavily on tourist and recreation including golf courses, ball parks, picnic areas, springs resorts, canoeing, fishing, biking, hiking, cross-county skiing, snowmobiliing, ballooonin, sky-diving, bed and breakfast, hotels, motels, realestate offices, restaurants, and others. The County should also contact the Wisconsin State Historical Society to get the number of estimated of protected archeological locations in the County to include (the actual location of sites is protected information). A sample county overview map with cultural, economic and natural sensitivities adjacent to potential corridors can be downloaded here [12 mb .pdf]
Assembling Experts to Evaluate the Received Materials
The written imaterials received from the transmission line builder will be uniform so that the towns, municipalities and counties can consider pooling the tasks of evaluating them. Local governments may wish to assign a person to participate in a County or multi-County, "Task Force." There are many experts who are looking upon the high voltage transmission interests in Southwest Wisconsin with great interst because of the large energy policy implications, nation-wide. A "Task Force" can also can involve interested citizens and elected officials. There are retirees with more time to invest with relevant skills.
Involving public particiption is beneficial on a number of fronts. A 2009 article in the Washington Times [4*] accounts of how an "informed public" was the principle force behind Public Service Commissions finding insufficent need for a high voltage transmission proposal. [5*]. The "Information Request" resolutions currrently being adopted by local governments in Southwest Wisconsin have borrowed substance from this successful cooperation between state agencies, local government and citizen participation.
Advantages that occur after the Public Information Meetings phase
Local governments whose lands are potentially impacted the final Application corridors will have about 30 days from the date the application is accepted by the PSC to decide whether to formally partiicpate in the legal proceedings. This involves filing to become a "Public Intervenor" and funding or another financial agreement to start researching and preparing arguments. The contacts made with experts, lawyers and other skilled professionals during the Public Information Meeting phase, becomes invaluable at this stage. For citizens whose land becomes impacted, the contacts made with other citizens can be used to share lawyer and assessor expenses.
One Town Chairman commented after adopting an Information Request Resolution, “A powerline proposal like this can seem overwhelming to a small Town. We don’t have money to hire experts but we do have time. The Resolution gives an early start learning about the proposal and all of our options. There is supposed to be common good created by this review process, so our first goal is to make sure that all of the options are brought to light. Then we can vigorously pursue what we feel creates the most common good.”
[1*] From, Commission Staff Final Report on Transmission Access Gas and Energy Division, Docket 137-EI-100, March 23, 2006. For additional information regarding local government input in high transmission proposals, contact Wisconsin Public Service of Wisconsin. These links also provide PSC information concerning the Review Process:
[2*] The Town of Stark in Vernon County held a public meeting with American Transmission Company in March 2011 asking for substantiation of claims made in their publicity materials. A video of that meeting and transcript of the first hour is available. Citizens have written will in excess of 200 letters to ATC asking similar questions and to the best of our knowledge, they have not be replied to even when follow-up requests were made to ATC with copies sent to the Wisconsin PSC.
[3*] Electricity use patterns are undergoing historical changes, Growth in the use of electricity is expected to average only 1% per year for the next 25 years (Page 73, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2011 with Projections to 2035) The results from state efficiency programs like “Efficiency Vermont,” strongly suggest that off-setting a mere .7% growth through Aggressive Energy Efficiency investment is a realistic option. See, "Review and Analysis of Existing Studies of the Energy Efficiency Resource Potential in the Midwest."
[4*] "Citizen Journalism: High Voltage Oppoistion to a Power Plan," September 1, 2009, The Washington Times.
[5*] The PATH Collapse- A Closer Look," by Bill Howley.