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Residents of Sauk and Columbia counties may soon be living with the high-capacity transmission line known as the Badger Coulee line, proposed to connect La Crosse and Madison. It would run on 150-foot towers through the Wisconsin River valley between Wisconsin Dells and Portage.

Proponents like to describe the Badger Coulee and projects like it as similar to new highways that meet the future energy needs of Wisconsin. In fact, large transmission lines are like a highway, but unfortunately they’re often the kind of highway you have to live next to and look at, but which most of us can’t actually get on.

The initial cost of building the system of generating plants and transmission lines that are the backbone of our electric grid is paid for by investors who own or finance power utilities. They get paid back by everyone who uses electricity when we pay our utility bills. Our Wisconsin Public Service Commission is the watchdog that makes sure our monopoly utilities only build the system we actually need, and that utilities charge reasonable rates.

In fact the past 15 years have seen a large increase in construction of both new generation and new transmission line capacity by Wisconsin utilities. That’s been great for the adequacy and reliability of our electricity supply — which is as high as it’s ever been. But paying for all those projects has also driven Wisconsin’s electric rates to be the highest in our region, partly because those utility investors are now getting repaid with a guaranteed 12 percent rate of return.

People living between La Crosse and Dane counties are now asking: If the Public Service Commission’s own Strategic Energy Assessment says Wisconsin’s electricity supply will be more than adequate and reliable for our energy needs for the foreseeable future — why are utilities still proposing to build more than $1.2 billion worth of new transmission lines in our state?

The rationale for new lines involves a notion of something like a regional “free trade” plan for utilities. Power suppliers in Wisconsin and places west of here would like to be able to sell more electricity to places like Chicago and Cincinnati. The emphasis among utilities today is on a regional power system that moves more electricity back and forth over even-longer distances, according to short term supply and demand — sort of like a stock market for electricity.

The upside may be all good for the people selling and moving power. The downside, however, comes with a very high local cost for people living near the lines. Once approved, just like a highway, utilities exercise eminent domain to force the sale of easements across thousands of parcels of private property. Because of the visual and perceived health risks of living near transmission lines, neighboring property owners and local communities are affected by reduced property values. And Wisconsin rate payers will pick up a significant part of the cost, regardless of how much real benefit the project provides.

That is why more than 79 local units of government in our area have signed resolutions asking the Public Service Commission to conduct an independent assessment of all available alternatives before approving new transmission lines like the Badger Coulee.

The fact is we could meet all of our future energy demands by investing in energy conservation for our homes and businesses, and building the kinds of smaller scale “distributed energy” projects that can be owned by users. In doing so we would save far more money for ratepayers and generate far more long-term Wisconsin jobs for workers.

I’ve written to and will continue to lobby our Public Service Commission to request that they evaluate what is best for Wisconsin energy users first, before approving new transmission line projects. With the new technologies for small scale power that are now available, we need to provide energy users like farmers and small businesses the ability to be energy entrepreneurs by producing and selling their own power from the sun, wind, or the by-products of their business.

If even a portion of the $12 billion that Wisconsin spends to import energy from outside our state was spent right here producing energy, our economy and our communities would be much stronger and our energy future would be more secure.

As always, it’s an honor to serve as your state representative.

Fred Clark represents the 42nd District in the state Assembly. His column appears monthly in the News Republic.