Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm
In August of 2003, the Northeast suffered the biggest electrical power blackout in American history. More than 50 million people lost electricity, from hours to several days.
Wisconsin has come close to experiencing a similar calamity when peak summer demand exceeded the supply of electricity, forcing numerous industries to shut down or curtail production.
Unfortunately, efforts to improve Wisconsin’s energy outlook have been derailed by Dane County Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan, who recently halted a much-needed expansion project in Oak Creek. He felt the Public Service Commission (PSC) had not followed the appropriate review process.
Judge Flanagan couldn’t be more wrong, unless the review process is intended to stop construction of power plants. His ruling means Wisconsin might not build another power plant for decades, putting our state in danger of blackouts and long-term job loss.
The PSC, in its Oak Creek decision, conducted a thorough review of the proposal and sought full public input. Over 24 hours of public hearings were held, nearly 300 citizens testified and 239 letters from citizens were reviewed. In addition, more than 90 hours of technical hearings were held and 70 expert witnesses testified. A 6,000-page record was produced and reviewed before the PSC made its decision.
So, what went wrong? The judge argues that the PSC failed to follow certain arcane and essentially meaningless regulations. For example, according to Judge Flanagan, the applicants should have presented, as alternatives, geographically-distinct sites for the new plant. Where the applicants failed, in his estimation, was they presented alternative proposed sites within their existing 1,000-acre facility, in order to avoid building a new power plant on greenspace.
Would Wisconsin have been better served had, say, the utility presented one site within the existing facility and alternatives somewhere else along Lake Michigan? The PSC has recommended removing alternative site requirements for power plants to be built on brownfields, industrial areas and existing power plant sites, in order to discourage the use of greenspace to site new power plants. That makes sense.
The ramifications of Judge Flanagan’s ruling are stunning. His action, if upheld on appeal, would handicap the agency charged with reviewing sorely-needed new power generation and transmission facilities. Gov. Jim Doyle’s staff estimates Wisconsin’s energy needs are growing by 2.5 percent, or about 375 megawatts, per year. This is equivalent to about one major power plant every two years. If no new plants are built, Wisconsin could experience capacity shortage by 2007. Delaying needed upgrades could undermine the availability of affordable, reliable electricity.
As a state, we must aggressively build new production and transmission facilities, and make the best use of the power we generate. Wisconsin’s energy providers are in the midst of a building cycle, in which critical infrastructure is being added to bolster our electrical system.
These proposals will have significant economic and environmental effects on Wisconsin and therefore must be subject to thorough public scrutiny to make sure they are the right facilities in the right places. This review process must be certain, predictable and reasonable. If Judge Flanagan is right, he has identified components of the review process that need to be reformed.
Hopefully, the Legislature and Governor can act quickly to fix the process and get these much needed projects back on track.
R.J. Pirlot is the director of legislative relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. This column originally appeared at Wisopinion.com, a media partner of Small Business Times.
December 17, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI