High-Energy Customers Don't Want High-Voltage Lines Overhead

Medical Center, UWM officials say above-ground power lines would be a move backward on innovation campuses.

Some 430 invitations will go out this week for a Sept. 12 open house where the public can learn about the 138,000-volt electric power transmission lines proposed to traverse western Wauwatosa to serve its developing Highway 45 corridor.

Although there seems to be little debate about the need for the new lines, whether segments of the new lines are built overhead – towering some 60 to 80 feet above ground – or buried underground is another matter.

Key stakeholders who would be served by the new lines describe overhead towers as incongruous with the innovative businesses and development springing up in area. Environmentalists cite concerns about a proposed overheard transmission route that would hug Underwood Creek and follow a portion of the popular Oak Leaf Trail.

As for the need for the new lines, We Energies estimates demand for electric power will double in western Milwaukee County in Wauwatosa's Highway 45 corridor as early as 2016. The utility has contracted with American Transmission Co. (ATC) to develop and build two high-voltage power lines to upgrade and increase current service. The lines would lead to a new We Energies substation proposed for just north of an existing substation at Watertown Plank Road at North 92nd Street.

ATC has plotted four options, each about two miles long, that include a mix of overhead transmission lines suspended on 60- to 80-foot towers and underground transmission lines. The project cost ranges from $14 million to $40 million, with underground lines the most costly option.

ATC's timeline for the project calls for submitting an application to the Public Service Commission (PSC) by early 2012. The PSC has final say on whether the project is needed and, if so, which transmission routes will be approved. The PSC could approve routes proposed by ATC or some variation.

ATC is required to submit a least-cost alternative to the PSC, but many receiving invitations this week prefer the more costly options that would keep all the lines underground.

"In this day and age and in this community, I think new above-ground transmission lines is really a questionable approach," said William Hatcher, executive director of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center,  the management and administrative arm of the regional medical campus and Flight-for-Life.

Underground lines are more the anomaly than the norm, however, in large part due to cost, said Mary Carpenter, a senior local relations representative with ATC.

"It is just wildly expensive," Carpenter said.

If new transmission lines for the project all were underground, she said, the project cost would translate to about $10 million a mile.

Given the terrain, environmentally sensitive areas, existing development and the type of innovative new development planned for the corridor, the most costly underground options is viewed as the best alternative to jibe with aesthetics of the congested urban area, according to Hatcher and others.

"I know they have to show the least-cost approach, but the PSC has to also take these other issues into consideration," Hatcher said. "The residents of Wauwatosa are not going to fall asleep on that. ... Someone will be the bad guy in this issue if there are above-ground lines."

Hatcher said MRMC has been discussing its growing electrical demands for the medical campus with We Energies for nearly five years. That dialogue stepped up in urgency within the past 18 months, he said, as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Innovation Park project took shape.

in the northeast quadrant of the Milwaukee County grounds in February, and earlier this month broke ground on the for the site, a $5.5 million business accelerator building. Full build-out of the site, which could take up to 25 years, could include up to 1.2 million square feet of new building space.

The next two decades are expected to include new development on the 303.6-acre MRMC campus that straddles Watertown Plank Road, runs east to North 85th Street and west to Highway 45, and is bordered by Wisconsin Avenue to the south, Hatcher said. The campus includes nearly 80 acres of vacant land available for development. Another 45-acre parcel that houses aging behavioral health division facilities is a target for redevelopment, Hatcher said, and the campus interior "will continue to become more and more densified and will grow in height."

Another critical factor driving the project to upgrade and enhance electrical service in the area is that the MRMC is home to the region's only Level One trauma facilities for adults and children, at .

The proposed routes for the new transmission lines include bringing in power from two separate directions, from the west and from the south, as shown in the proposed routes map accompanying this article. Such redundancy would create added reliability in case either line would go down.

"We need to be the last man standing ... and that is why we were extremely pleased when they went with two separate lines from different locations,” Hatcher said. “If one is down, the other is physically separated, and the chances of both being down are remote."

One of the western routes, however, has raised concern among environmentalists. ATC's Underwood Creek route would place overheard transmission lines along the southern edge of Underwood Creek. This proposed route begins at a juncture of existing transmission lines just south of North 120th Street at Diane Drive, and continues east along the creek to Watertown Plank Road or further north along the creek and the Oak Leaf Trail until the creek jags north after crossing under North Mayfair Road.

"There is really no ideal route," said Cheryl Nenn, a biologist with Milwaukee Riverkeeper, an organization that works to protect water quality and wildlife habitat in the Milwaukee River Basin that includes three watersheds, one of which is the Menomonee River watershed in Wauwatosa.

The Underwood Creek route runs through wetland areas that are completely wild and prone to flooding, Nenn said. The type of construction required for overhead lines, she said, would require removing an 80-foot swathe of trees and other vegetation that currently help soak water and curb potential flooding.

The Underwood route becomes more complex because of a Waukesha County plan to discharge wastewater to Underwood Creek from Bluemound Road, Nenn said. And the I-94 Zoo Interchange project is projected to increase stormwater runoff into the area by 33 percent, Nenn said.

"Every route is problematic," Nenn said, whether it is a route that runs through environmentally sensitive areas or along Highway 45. "We would definitely hope that they could keep out of that wetland area completely."

Long-term plans for the creek include the possibility of rewatering the orginal creek bed, which was abandoned when the creek was channelized with concrete beds in the 1950s, Nenn said. 

"We have the original channel, so the opportunity is there to go in and right a wrong, if you will," Nenn said. "I don't want anything to happen that would preclude our doing work in the future." 

"I am very concerned about this little creek that is seeing death from a thousand cuts." 

A second western route calls for underground transmission lines on Walnut Street, running from North 120th Street east to the edge of the s yard and .

The two western routes include two options to cut east to a new substation, underground along Watertown Plank or overhead across land between the Milwaukee County Fleet Maintenance Facility and the athletic fields. That second option has overhead lines crossing Highway 45 and moving underground to cut across the UWM Innovation Park parcel.

The two proposed southern routes include an overhead option to begin near an existing We Energies substation at 96th Street and continue east along the west edge of Highway 45 to Watertown Plank, where the lines would then go underground. The second southerly route option originates in the same area and is entirely underground as it runs through residential areas and the enter medical campus north on North 92nd Street.

Hatcher said the MRMC preference would be to keep the southerly route off its campus, along Highway 45, and all underground. Underground lines, he said, not only preserve aesthetics, but also would keep massive towers from having to be factored into flight paths for MRMC's Flight For Life operations.

UWM also hopes the PSC opts for ATC's proposed underground options, said Curtis Stang, chief operating officer of the UWM Foundation Inc. and the UWM Real Estate Foundation Inc.

"We think the ideal solution would be to have it run under Watertown Plank Road," Stang said. "The timing seems to be such that it could work out very well" and jibe with the state Department of Transportation's proposed 2014 reconstruction of Watertown Plank as part of the Zoo Interchange project, which could reduce costs.

"It's aesthetics, especially for what we are trying to develop" at Innovation Park, Stang said.

The Innovation Park project will include protecting environmentally sensitive land on the parcel that serves as habitat for migrating monarch butterflies, Stang said.

Building overheard transmission lines in an area where there is a commitment to the environment and innovation, Stang said,  "almost seems like you are going backwards."

ATC will not recommend any particular route when it submits its application to the PSC, Carpenter said, leaving that decision to commissioners. The PSC examines projects with an eye on the broad array of concerns, including how project costs translate into consumers' electrical rates.

Carpenter said ATC has been collecting comments for nearly a year, and those comments, as well as all comments received at the upcoming open house and other forums, including public hearings, will be entered into the record for PSC consideration. The application will include ATC's environmental analysis. It will be up to the PSC to determine if a more detailed environmental analysis is required.

"We are not seeing anything out there that would be a showstopper" for the project, Carpenter said, adding that public comment remains a critical part of the process as ATC develops its application and once it is submitted to the PSC.

"We really encourage people to stay engaged through this process," Carpenter said. "If you don't participate and don't follow it through the regulatory process, you don't have a voice."

The Sept. 12 open house will be 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Wauwatosa Civic Center, . ATC experts will be on hand to answer questions about the project and the process.

Once an application is submitted, the PSC approval process can take up to a year. If the project is approved, construction is projected to begin in summer 2014, with the new power lines and substation to be in service by spring 2015. We Energies said the new substation would take up about 1.5 acres, including fencing, and the old substation would be torn down once the new substation is in service.

The ATC web site offers a detailed overview of the western Milwaukee County transmission lines project.  

Cheryl Nenn September 07, 2011 at 07:16 PM
Just to clarify one of the statements--Underwood Creek is not seeing death from a lot of people--I said "death from a thousand cuts" intimating that many different projects are adding up to cummulative impacts on the water quality and habitat of Underwood Creek, and that these impacts could also affect flooding in the future if less water is being absorbed by wetlands/floodplain.
Jim Price September 07, 2011 at 08:30 PM
Hi Cheryl – Thanks for the note. I have corrected your statement.
Cheryl Nenn November 09, 2011 at 07:43 PM
Thanks, Jim!


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