By Tom Still

In the western Wisconsin community of Holmen, just north of
La Crosse, fifth-graders from Evergreen Elementary recently chimed in on the
debate over where – and if – the Badger-Coulee transmission line should be

The students’ concerns, voiced in letters written for a
class research project, ranged from playground safety (one child worried that
kickballs couldn’t be retrieved from a “no-man’s land” near the 345-kilovolt
line) to the loss of nearby pine trees that help define the school.

The class letters, an admirable exercise in getting kids to
think about something other than the next download of “Clash of Clans,”
illustrate how hard it can be to build high-voltage power lines in Wisconsin.
These location battles are typically a clash of two different clans – the
NIMBYs and the Straight-Line Engineers.

The Not-In-My-Back-Yard contingent usually worries most
about the aesthetics, safety and property value threat of power lines passing
through their neighborhoods. The Straight-Line Engineers are often concerned
with finding the most cost-effective, direct route for lines that naturally
lose energy the longer they traverse the countryside.

As the state Public Service Commission weighs the pros and
cons of the Badger-Coulee line, another factor may rule over both clans: The
need to wean Wisconsin from its coal habit.

Wisconsin is still among the most coal-dependent states in
the United States, even though state utility companies are trying to meet
deadlines for alternative energy production from wind and solar power and
relying more on natural gas to generate electricity.

A recent report by the PSC shows coal now makes up 51
percent of Wisconsin’s energy mix, down from 63 percent two years ago.
Meanwhile, use of natural gas has doubled from 9 percent two years ago to 18
percent in the latest analysis. The assessment also found Wisconsin is “well on
its way” to meeting its goal of having 10 percent of its energy generated by
renewable sources by next year.

The need to retire or clean up coal plants will become even
more intense if the Obama administration succeeds in requiring a 30 percent cut
in carbon emissions by coal-fired plants over time. It’s an attempt to counter
global climate change, as well as other health and environmental risks tied to
burning coal.

Industry in Wisconsin and elsewhere has reacted strongly to
the mandate, claiming it will raise energy prices and kill jobs in a fragile

However, most utility companies already view more stringent
carbon dioxide limits as inevitable. In fact, it’s unlikely another coal-fired
plant will ever be built in the United States. That means finding alternatives
in an era when Wisconsin’s nuclear power plants face an uncertain future (one
has already shut down) and using natural gas remains a price-sensitive option.

That brings us back to that kickball-eating Badger-Coulee

For years, Wisconsin was pretty much an energy island when
it came to electrical power: Very few high-voltage lines carried power into the
state from outside its borders. Badger-Coulee is an attempt by American
Transmission Co. and a larger Midwest transmission network to enhance
reliability and gain access to electricity produced elsewhere, which reduces
the need for new plants in Wisconsin.

Badger-Coulee would largely transmit electrons produced by
wind power farms in Minnesota and the Dakotas. It would also reduce congestion
in the existing network and provide utilities with greater access to the
wholesale electricity market, which would help control the rates consumers pay.

While some environmentalists oppose Badger-Coulee or some of
its proposed routes, others support the plan, saying Wisconsin could do a lot
worse than import a renewable resource such as wind power to ease out coal. One
such group is the Coalition Organized for Reliable Energy, which includes
businesses, labor and trade associations.

The costs of burning coal are hard to ignore. They include
the routine deaths of miners around the world to costly transportation
accidents to human health risks, ranging from premature births to particulates
that cause respiratory troubles. A typical coal-fired plant releases 100 times
more radioactive material than an equivalent nuclear reactor – straight into
the air, not into a guarded and enclosed storage site.

Importing electricity generated by wind farms to the west
should be part of a Wisconsin energy portfolio that reduces coal use over time.
Few people want a power line to be built near their homes and schools, but
providing safe, reliable power for all of Wisconsin shouldn’t be a political