Utilities Set to Spend more than $2 Billion on New Transmission Lines in Wisconsin

Three new transmission lines that are estimated to cost around $2.2 billion will cross through Wisconsin under a large expansion approved by the Midwest grid operator that’s designed to facilitate the clean energy transition.

The board for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator signed off on a $10.3 billion portfolio of 18 transmission projects for the Upper Midwest on July 25. The lines are expected to support 53 gigawatts of renewable energy and provide between  $23 to $52 billion in benefits as utilities retire aging coal plants. Projects in Wisconsin are slated to start coming online as early as 2028.

The regional grid operator plans to begin issuing requests for proposals this fall. All projects approved would be built in MISO’s Midwest subregion that includes Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Utilities building the transmission lines would still need the approval of state regulators. The cost would be paid for by customers in that region.

The largest proposal in Wisconsin is a $1 billion transmission line that would run through the central region of the state. Xcel said the utility and other partners expect to replace existing lines with 345-kilovolt lines as part of that project, although some lower-voltage lines may remain in place. American Transmission Company and other local transmission owners also have lines in the region.

While renewable advocates and utilities welcome word of the investment, groups representing industrial energy customers filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over the plans. The Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, or WIEG, and others argue that MISO’s plan to exclude around $5.5 billion in projects from a competitive bidding process will lead to customers paying more for transmission lines, including in Wisconsin.

Todd Stuart, executive director of WIEG, said the way MISO defines work as “upgrades” to transmission lines also blocks competition. The grid operator plans to assign projects to existing owners of transmission lines if at least 80 percent of the costs are due to upgrading the system, arguing that competition on small pieces of projects could delay their construction.

“I don’t think Wisconsin families and businesses can afford this burden. We need all tools for reducing rates or mitigating rates,” said Stuart, adding that includes competitive bidding.

Wisconsin Public Service Commission data shows transmission expenses among the state’s largest investor-owned utilities increased from $263.1 million to $684.5 million from 2005 to 2020, representing an increasing share of their total operating expenses. Even so, the PSC said expenses paid by customers have remained “comparatively stable” as costs ranged from $3.9 to $4.5 billion each year between 2008 and 2019.