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Power line fight in the U.P.

There’s a fight brewing about whether Michigan’s Upper Peninsula needs two new power lines. The high voltage lines would cut through northern woodlands to bring electricity from Wisconsin to the U.P. Energy companies say the single existing line is maxed out.

An announcement by WE Energies of Milwaukee sparked this debate last fall. The company said it would phase out an old coal burning power plant in Marquette over the next five years. To keep the plant going would mean investing millions in new pollution controls.

People in the U.P. were worried about where their power would come from, and they were upset about the prospect of losing 170 jobs at the Presque Isle power plant.

WE Energies favors building new power lines to send electricity from Wisconsin to the U.P. That plan was put on a fast track for regulatory approval.

But then a couple of weeks ago, WE Energies and Wolverine Power based in northern lower Michigan announced a joint venture.

They’re now looking at upgrading the plant in Marquette to meet stricter pollution rules.

Brian Manthey of WE Energies says the decision hasn’t been made yet whether to keep the coal plant going. But he says that doesn’t really affect the plan for new transmission lines.

“With or without the future of the Presque Isle power plant being considered transmission is desperately needed in that area. And there does need to be transmission upgrades.”

But citizen groups say: not so fast.

New power lines would cut a swath for more than a hundred miles through northern forests, and they’d be expensive.

Howard Lerner with the Environmental Law and Policy Center says that decision ought to be carefully weighed, not rushed.

And he says at this point new transmission lines are overkill.

“If WE Energies and Wolverine Power Cooperative do the right thing and retrofit the plant up at Presque Isle in Marquette with modern pollution control equipment then don’t also at the same time try to force consumers to pay for a billion dollars of new transmission lines.”

WE Energies retrofitted a similar coal plant in Wisconsin at a cost of $900 million.

A decision by the Board that oversees transmission lines is expected in June.

Then the plan would need approval from utility regulators in Wisconsin and Michigan.

-Bob Allen for The Environment Report