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Arrowhead-Weston powerline to be switched on today

After years of controversy, conflict and construction, the Arrowhead-Weston high-voltage transmission line between Hermantown and the Wausau, Wis., area is ready to be turned on.

After years of controversy, conflict and construction, the Arrowhead-Weston high-voltage transmission line between Hermantown and the Wausau, Wis., area is ready to be turned on.

State, regional and local elected officials and community leaders will join American Transmission Co. executives today at the Weston generating station in Rothschild, Wis., for a ceremonial flipping of the switch for the 220-mile, 345-kilovolt, $439 million line.

The line will carry 600 to 800 megawatts of energy -- enough electricity to power 200,000 to 250,000 households.

"We and our partners are excited to have the project completed," Randy Satterfield, ATC vice president of public affairs, said Monday. "Having another interstate tie with Minnesota will improve reliability of the electrical system not just in Wisconsin, but across the Midwest."

A proposal to build another high-voltage transmission line connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin was first made about 10 years ago. Supporters said the line was needed to help Wisconsin meet its growing energy needs and to increase the reliability of the regional transmission system. When the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin first approved Wisconsin segments of the line in 2001, the state had only four power lines of 200 kilovolts or higher connecting it with other states. At the time, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota and North Dakota each had between 15 and 21 such links to neighboring states.

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Such connections help states share electricity during high demand, when power stations are shut down for repairs or when weather takes a line down.

"The Arrowhead-Weston fiasco may be over, but ATC and the game-playing and the money buying Madison continues on," said Tom Kreager, president of the grass-roots group Save Our Unique Land, which formed in opposition to the Arrowhead Weston project.

SOUL and others opposed the project because of fears over the line's effects on the environment, public health and property values and concerns over costs.

"This whole dog-and-pony show, back when it was first introduced in 1999, was going to cost the ratepayers $125 million," Kreager said. "But it's closer to $440 million. Once all is said and done, we still don't know if it is actually going to work the way we've been told it will work for reliability. It could be that the ratepayers are going to get a very nice, expensive solution that just leaves them sitting in the dark."

For several years, SOUL, its members and other Arrowhead-Weston foes packed public hearings and were involved in lawsuits, rallies and letter-writing and petition campaigns. SOUL lobbied local governments to oppose the line. In 2000, SOUL said that at least 59 towns, villages and cities and eight counties had passed resolutions opposing the line.

The Douglas County Board passed such a resolution in 1999. That opposition lasted nearly six years until state lawmakers passed a law allowing utilities to condemn public property for state-approved electrical transmission lines if they are unable to reach a negotiated settlement with local governments. After that, Douglas County supervisors voted 14-10 in July 2005 to negotiate with ATC.

That led to ATC agreeing to pay the county more than $610,000 for access to county property. ATC also paid Douglas County a one-time state environmental impact fee of $1.7 million. The company also will pay Douglas County more than $2 million in annual impact fees over 40 years. The money goes into the county's general fund.

Satterfield and Douglas County Administrator Steve Koszarek said the construction of the line went well, with few problems and little vandalism.

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"I'm sure there are people who aren't happy, but the actual project went off without a lot of problems," Koszarek said. "It's behind us now."

The line is coming into service several months sooner than ATC and its project partners -- Minnesota Power and Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service Corp. -- had expected.

"The line construction itself wrapped up at the end of last year, and the substation work was being completed this year," Satterfield said. "We fired it up about 10 days ago for early testing," with the line handling between 200 and 300 megawatts.

The line cost considerably more than first expected. Project costs were expected to run about $168 million when the PSCW first approved the line in August 2001. The commission reapproved the project in September 2003, after costs rose to more than $400 million. ATC cited stricter environmental safeguards, higher land costs and a two-year project delay as reasons for the cost increases.

Construction of the line began in early 2004 with work on the 12-mile section between the Arrowhead substation in Hermantown and the St. Louis River in Gary-New Duluth.

Steve Kuchera is a retired Duluth News Tribune photographer.
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