Jul 30, 2014
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City Hopes for We Energies' Support on Buried Lines

The utility CEO signed a letter supporting underground alternatives for a power line in a different location. But Wauwatosa must first choose its own preferred route before it can hope for backing from utility company, city attorney says.

City Hopes for We Energies' Support on Buried Lines

If Wauwatosa can somehow come to grips with controversy and pick a preferred underground route from the west for a new power line to the County Grounds, it could win an important endorsement.

It might be the most important endorsement it could possibly get — from We Energies, the utility that would sell the power carried on that line.

We Energies CEO Gale Klappa signed a joint letter Aug. 2 with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Ald. Michael Murphy in support of underground alternatives only for a second power line from the south through a Milwaukee neighborhood.

The letter made no mention of any preference for any route for the western approach through Wauwatosa, underground or overhead. But that could be because Wauwatosa has not yet made its own preference known.

Back in late June, , he suggested that We Energies seemed to like a proposed route buried under Walnut Road.

Kesner told Wauwatosa Patch that he immediately heard from a We Energies vice president that the utility could not and would not publicly express any preference for any route or means of installing it.

We Energies, he was told, had to remain neutral as the party contracting with American Transmission Co. to build the new power lines.

We Energies once built its own power lines, but about 10 years ago it spun off that function and ATC was created from it as a separate company.

Utility's support could sway PSC

So, it came as a complete surprise to Kesner — and a pleasant one, he said Monday — when he learned that Klappa had signed an endorsement for an all-underground southern route.

"If Wauwatosa can settle on a route," he said, "I would hope that (We Energies) might endorse that, too."

Since We Energies would set user rates based on its cost for paying ATC to build the lines, its support for any route could go a long way with the PSC. The PSC has a directive to protect ratepayers by considering least-cost alternatives and must see a compelling case to choose a higher-cost alternative.

Utility companies are of course sensitive to ratepayers as well, so Klappa's statement resonates. Underground lines cost about three times as much per linear unit as overhead lines, and those costs would be passed on to all customers.

Two new 138,000-volt lines are needed to support increasing demand from County Grounds institutions, in particular the growing electrical needs of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, but also the and expected demand from UWM's nascent Innovation Park.

Since those needs are life- or laboratory-critical, redundant power sources are called for in specifications, so that no localized accident or natural disaster can curtail power.

Oppose, but also propose

American Transmission Co. proposed two western route alternatives, both of which were so objectionable to Wauwatosa residents that the city was persuaded to pass a resolution opposing them both and supporting underground-only routes.

One route ATC proposed, which would be the least-cost alternative, would have put transmission towers along about a mile and a half of , partly through a wetland ecological community and partly above the Oak Leaf bicycle trail.

The other would have been partly overhead across a critical economic development zone and partly underground through the front yards of four blocks of residences on the north side of Walnut Road, between North 120th and 116th streets.

Rejecting both those routes was the easy part — nobody liked either of them. But Kesner has stressed since the beginning that Wauwatosa needed to not just oppose all alternatives; it needed to propose a preferred route in consensus with other stakeholders, or "intervenors."

Wauwatosa has already joined with the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Montessori School in support of the buried southern route.

But when Kesner proposed a consensus choice for the western route that would still come down Walnut Road, yet be buried under the pavement of the street instead of through people's front yards, .

While it is only speculation that Klappa would also support an underground western route if Wauwatosa can pick one — a more expensive proposition than overhead lines — Kesner is hopeful.

"It would be a good thing," he said. "It certainly wouldn't hurt."

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