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Toward cleaner power in Wisconsin

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 1:37pm -- Jane Elder

When you turn on the lights or turn up the air conditioner, do you ever wonder what powers up the energy on the other side of the switch?  In Wisconsin, for decades, the primary fuel that utilities have used to produce electricity has been coal, and even the most modern coal-fired power plants produce a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the combustion process. The CO2 produced from burning coal and other fossil fuels is one of the largest drivers of accelerating global climate change, so any strategy to combat climate change must incorporate energy choices that reduce overall CO2 emissions. As the federal government under President Trump shifts away from carbon emission reductions, many are wondering if major power producers across the United States will follow suit.

In Wisconsin, our utilities are continuing to voluntarily embrace goals that will move Wisconsin toward cleaner energy sources and less carbon emissions. While coal still provided 52% of Wisconsin’s net electrical generation in 2016, a change is in air—literally. Wisconsin power providers, from its largest investor-owned utilities to local electrical co-ops, are shifting to cleaner fuels. While some have been moving in this direction for several years in anticipation of the now-stalled EPA Clean Power Plan, market forces, including the cost of natural gas, the increasing competitiveness of solar energy, and customer demand for cleaner energy, are all factors in this shift.

Several major Wisconsin utilities have adopted goals to reduce CO2 emissions compared with a baseline year of 2005.

Xcel Energy, which serves portions of western Wisconsin and seven other states, is leading the pack, with plans to reduce its CO2 emissions by 60% by 2030. Xcel plans to accomplish this through greater reliance on natural gas but also through significant growth in the use of wind-generated energy (already an important part of their energy portfolio), as well as other renewable sources.

Other major utilities have set their CO2 target at 40% reductions by 2030. The state’s largest utility, the WEC companies (We Energies and WPS), serves southeastern Wisconsin and portions of Outagamie and neighboring counties. The WEC strategy to achieve CO2 reductions primarily relies on shifting more electrical generation to natural gas-powered plants and retiring older coal plants.

Alliant Energy serves portions of Wisconsin and Iowa, and is following a path similar to WEC’s, with increased reliance on natural gas but also new investments in renewable energy to reach their target of reducing CO2 emissions 40% by 2030. Alliant already operates four wind farms and purchases power from ten others. Their Cedar Ridge Wind Farm in Fond du Lac County has enough capacity (68 megawatts) to power approximately 17,000 homes, and they recently announced plans for a new solar farm in Dubuque, Iowa, as well as a new array at their new gas-fired Riverside plant in Beloit.

Madison Gas & Electric has already made significant shifts to natural gas generation. In addition, their strategy includes generating 30% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. Shared Solar, a partnership between MG&E and the City of Middleton, allows participating customers to purchase electricity generated from the 500-kilowatt solar array built on the roof of Middleton’s Municipal Operations Center.

Wisconsin Public Power (WPPI) and NextEra Energy Resources are moving ahead with plans to install a 100-megawatt solar array (the state’s largest) adjacent to the Point Beach nuclear plant in Two Rivers. When the project is completed in 2021, this new solar array will feed into the existing power grid, supplying over 23,000 people with clean and affordable energy.

Lacking clear guidance in energy planning at the state and federal levels, Wisconsin utilities are creating their own roadmaps for the future. Setting greenhouse gas emission goals helps utilities by establishing a target to plan for and act on to achieve these reductions. While much of the progress utilities have already achieved toward these goals has been made by transitioning coal to natural gas, there are many emerging opportunities to incorporate more renewables into their energy portfolios, particularly with rapidly decreasing costs.

At the Wisconsin Academy, we will continue to work toward demystifying the electricity sector in Wisconsin. Look for more from us in the coming months as we continue to delve into the decisions, processes, and technologies that collectively determine what goes into producing the electricity you use when you flip on that switch.

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Jane Elder is executive director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brings to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts. Her career has focused on environmental policy and communications, while personal interests include theater, modern dance and painting.

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