In the year 2011, President Barack Obama announced U.S. Marines had killed Osama Bin Laden, Prince William married Kate Middleton, and Mojang Studios released the blockbuster video game Minecraft. It was also the year the plan for the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line was set into motion.
When the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), the grid operator that directs the flow of electricity across the Midwest region that covers 15 states, including Wisconsin and part of Canada, released its list of routes critical to building out the region’s transmission infrastructure, the proposal to build a line from a substation west of Madison to connect to Dubuque, Iowa, was on it. MISO was already planning for an anticipated influx of wind and solar projects, which requires more capacity to get the electricity from its source to those who need it. Shortly after MISO released its report on the most-needed transmission projects, Dairyland Power Cooperative, along with transmission project co-owner utilities American Transmission Company (ATC) and ITC Midwest, got to work on the complex, layered, in-depth process of seeking state and federal approvals to build the 345-kV Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line. Thirteen years later, it’s still not done.
“When this project was initially planned, we expected to have this critical transmission project in service several years ago,” said Dairyland’s Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Ben Porath. “This has been taking far longer than it should.”
It’s a regional problem with global impacts. More than 160 clean energy projects—including wind, solar, and battery storage—depend on the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line, which means they can’t connect to the grid until the line is built.
“It’s like if you have a water system in a city and you get a couple new subdivisions coming in, and they want to connect to the existing water system, and the engineers say, ‘Wait a second, with all that new need, we have to expand the water pipelines,’” Porath explained. “Similarly, as all these new wind farms want to come on to the Upper Midwest grid system in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, we can’t keep pushing the same energy across the same transmission line pipelines without more capacity.”
The lengthy process of permitting transmission projects may be the biggest impediment to the clean energy transition. President Joe Biden and his administration pledged to cut emissions in the United States by 50% by 2030, but a new report by the independent research firm Rhodium Group finds we will likely miss the mark. U.S. emissions dropped 2% in 2023, but it’s not enough to reach the goal set to fight climate change and slow the warming of the planet.
And the planet is, indeed, warming. The European climate agency Copernicus reports that 2023 broke the global heat record with an increase of 1.48 degrees Celsius (2.66 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, edging very close to the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit that climate experts say would be catastrophic and result in irreversible effects.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2023 was only the fifth warmest year on record. However, it still reports the heat was record-breaking in the number of billion-dollar environmental disasters it caused. There were 28 separate weather events that resulted in $93 billion in total damages last year, breaking the previous record of 22 billion-dollar events set in 2020.
That is motivating data for many environmentalists, community leaders, and, of course, politicians. Biden and congressional Democrats pushed through the most sweeping climate law in U.S. history in 2022. The Inflation Reduction Act authorizes nearly $375 billion in tax credits and other incentives to accelerate the clean energy transition, but it does not directly address the delays that, in recent years, slowed the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project to a halt.
Last year, Dairyland Vice President for Strategic Growth John Carr testified before Congress as it considered the “Builder” Act, aimed at streamlining permitting.
“We simply must reform the process to enable the transition that is already underway and to ensure it can be done reliably and affordably for our customers,” Carr said.
In his testimony, Carr talked about delays with the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project and asked lawmakers to establish firm timelines for consideration of environmental reviews, which currently take 4.5 years on average, to work more closely with applicants in the process while maintaining agency authority, to ensure more efficient reviews for projects with minimal environmental impacts, and to limit unnecessary litigation.
“It’s not a matter of skipping steps or skipping reviews or minimizing people’s rights. It’s a matter of streamlining the process so those rights can all be addressed without causing undue cost pressures and increases to the consumer,” Porath said.
The Builder Act stalled in Congress, but some of its provisions, including a two-year time limit on agency-produced “Environmental Impact Statements” and a one-year limit on “Environmental Assessments,” made it into the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023. What did not make it into the law was the “judicial review” provision that would have put a time limit on litigation.
Legal challenges at the state and federal level have been the most significant barrier to the Cardinal-Hickory project, which is 98% complete. Approximately 1.3 miles of the 102-mile route cross over the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, drawing opposition from environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife, for the impact the line may have, mainly on birds.
For its part, in addition to the extensive environmental studies and actions required in state and federal applications to build transmission lines, Dairyland, under the cooperative principle of “Concern for Community,” seeks to serve its members by going beyond in its work to support clean air, land, and water, and minimize impacts on wildlife. Some of Dairyland’s voluntary projects include re-establishing the Peregrine falcon, improving fish habitat, planting pollinator gardens for the Monarch butterfly population, and installing bird diverters on powerlines.
“They look like big whiffle balls on the lines,” Porath explained. “We place these yellow or gray balls about every 15 to 30 feet on the wires, depending on location. It gives them a visual cue so they can fly around it.”
In the latest round of legal wrangling, in July, the 7th District Court of Appeals sided with Dairyland and its transmission line co-owner utilities, but it’s not over yet. Since then, the project co-owners have continued to work closely with federal agencies to support their final authorizations to allow for completion of the last short segment from near the Nelson Dewey Substation westward across the Mississippi River to near the Turkey River Substation in Clayton County, Iowa.
“It’s a much better place to cross the river and a lot less environmental impact,” Porath said. “It will follow where the ferry crosses, it will follow the road that people come in on, and it will be built on the farming side of the road which has already been cleared.”
Another court challenge would mean another delay and increase in the final cost of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Line, which has already exceeded projections. In its initial application with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, Dairyland, ATC, and ITC Midwest projected the final cost of the project would be $492 million. As of March 31, 2023, costs had already topped $530 million due to the ongoing legal challenges that extended construction into the pandemic and beyond.
“If we had this fully procured, bought all the poles and had the final engineering done and all approvals in, we would have finished building this, probably in the middle of COVID. But because now we’ve had to wait, we’ve got inflation costs from the supply-chain issues as well as the legal costs impacting the bottom line of the project,” Porath said. (Cost sharing of the Cardinal-Hickory line will be spread across multiple states, with Wisconsin consumers paying 10-15% of the total cost through a charge on utility bills.)
In the meantime, Dairyland announced that the east side of the line had been energized. It was put into service on December 7, 2023. This is good news for the growing list of renewable energy projects that are in various stages of development, waiting in the MISO queue for the go-ahead to connect to the grid. These include solar farms pending in Richland, Green, Chippewa, Barron, and Columbia counties; a wind farm in Lafayette County; and a 150 MW battery storage plant in Buffalo County, just to name a few.
Porath is hopeful the approvals will come soon. “We expect to have that in the first quarter, so that we can finalize construction of the river crossing over the next few months and have the full line in service by June 2024.”
Dairyland and its project partners say the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line will reduce energy costs, improve the reliability and flexibility of the region’s transmission system, and promote clean energy by delivering wind and solar energy from the upper Great Plains to southern Wisconsin. The 161 renewable energy projects it will support will bring more than 24.7 gigawatts of electricity to the grid—enough to power millions of homes and businesses with clean energy.
But it still has to get finished first.—Julie Lund