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A New Kind of Road Map for Wisconsin

An overview of the forthcoming Wisconsin Academy report: "Climate Forward: A New Road Map for Wisconsin’s Climate and Energy Future"


The year 1999 was a good one for advocates of clean energy in America. When the year began, only three states required their utilities to generate any electricity from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels. By the end of 1999, four more states had enacted renewable portfolio standards, which are policies designed to increase electricity generation from renewable resources like wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass. Wisconsin capped this pivotal year by setting a modest standard of 2.2% of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2012. In 2006, the state legislature moved the bar up to 10% for renewables by 2015 and set new goals for efficiency.

Unfortunately, that year was to be the near end of Wisconsin’s state-level leadership in matters of energy and climate change. Today, eight years later, we’re flat at about 7% of our energy coming from renewables, and many of the 2006 energy efficiency initiatives have been scaled back.

We continue to rely on fossil fuel-burning technologies that grow rather than shrink our carbon footprint, exacerbating climate change at home and around the globe. All across America—38 states and the District of Columbia, to be exact—attention and resources are being directed toward renewable portfolio standards, leaving Wisconsin in the dust when it comes to increasing energy efficiency and courting the green economy. 

However, a number of Wisconsin farms, municipalities, and businesses both large and small are no longer waiting for legislative action. Instead, they are moving forward, fighting to uphold our conservation legacy and do their part to address climate change. Drawing from a deep and diverse pool of scientific, technical, and professional talent, many citizens of our state are working to apply the can-do spirit of the Wisconsin Idea to the critical problem of climate change.


A steward for the Wisconsin Idea for over 142 years, the Wisconsin Academy recently focused attention and resources on exploring of the connections between our state’s energy use and global climate change. For the past eighteen months the Wisconsin Academy has encouraged and amplified productive conversations about innovative climate and energy solutions for Wisconsin.

The product of these conversations is Climate Forward: A New Road Map for Wisconsin’s Climate and Energy Future, a document that assesses where we are today and outlines a practical vision for an energy future that is good for our environment, economy, and life in Wisconsin. 

Climate Forward is for those who understand that global climate change is one of the most serious social, economic, and environmental challenges of our time. Climate Forward does not offer a comprehensive solution to climate change, nor does it address every single energy need now or in the future. The document is called a “road map” because it will help us navigate the myriad choices as we begin to address climate change in ways that protect our natural and human resources. 

The details of the science behind measuring climate change and the ways in which we observe its growing catalog of evidence and threats, both local and global, will not be recapitulated in this article. If you’re in doubt, the educational resources available are comprehensive and, at times, ominous.

Here, we will focus on the constellation of options and opportunities featured in Climate Forward and share a brief overview of what the Wisconsin Academy hopes to achieve with this document.

The biggest part of the climate change challenge is to establish and accelerate a clean and sustainable energy economy. Practically every human activity—from taking a phone call to taking a shower—uses energy. The triumph of our modern economy is the constant and easy availability of energy to do whatever we please. But if this energy comes from burning a fossil fuel, the carbon dioxide released contributes—infinitesimally, incrementally, but inevitably—to climate change. Today more than 80% of Wisconsin’s energy comes from coal, oil, or natural gas. Reimagining the way we generate, move, and use energy is a challenge that reverberates from Wisconsin around the globe.

Massive as the task may seem, it’s offset by the fact that we already have all of the tools we need to create a more efficient, resilient energy system overall. Further technological advances will lighten our load, but the real challenge is one of personal, cultural, and political will.

This job won’t be easy. But continuing on our present course is not sustainable.

We can and should have a wider and deeper conversation about this topic in Wisconsin. All of our citizens—especially those who will come after us—have a stake in the choices that we make now and in the coming years.


“Turn off the light when you leave.”

It’s a phrase each of us has heard hundreds of times. And if the light bulb is a low-energy LED, the phrase nicely encapsulates one of the easiest ways to reduce Wisconsin’s carbon footprint: by improving energy conservation and efficiency.

Wisconsin ranked 23rd out of all U.S. states in the 2013 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard, published by American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a national energy efficiency information and advocacy organization. At the same time that other states were making rapid efficiency gains, Wisconsin dropped six positions compared to 2012, continuing a five-year slide. ACEEE contends that one reason Wisconsin has been losing ground is the changes the legislature made to Focus on Energy, the state utilities’ program that works with eligible Wisconsin residents and businesses to install cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

These projects are essential because, well, winters are cold here, and we use a lot of energy to heat buildings. Insulation and other efficiency enhancements added to existing buildings have great potential to save energy and money. Thinking smart about new construction, like taking advantage of passive solar design and using technology such as solar panels and geothermal heat exchangers, can push a building towards a carbon footprint approaching zero.

Inside the home are myriad efficiency opportunities, from using Energy Star appliances to incorporating new lighting technology. Innovations in manufacturing, including the recycling and reuse of materials, are changing every industry. By using cradle-to-cradle analyses, manufacturers can intelligently evaluate the life cycle of a product or technology and better understand the hidden ecological impact and carbon footprint of goods and services. Using local materials can further lower carbon emissions associated with transportation of goods.

One of Wisconsin’s efficiency leaders is the West Central Wisconsin Community Action Agency Inc. (West CAP). Among the state’s first community action agencies, West CAP was founded in 1965 to help rural families overcome poverty and cultivate a more just and sustainable society. Based in Glenwood City, near the St. Croix River Valley, the organization assists low-income families by enhancing both their self-sufficiency and their contribution to the sustainability of their communities within the areas of housing, transportation, food security, job skills, and basic literacy.

The rising cost of electricity is a significant challenge for all Wisconsin residents, but it can be crippling for low-income households in rural areas. According to West CAP executive director Peter Kilde, the more we can free ourselves from dependence on expensive and inefficient fossil fuels, the more resilient Wisconsin citizens can become. For example, West CAP developed the Residential Alternative Energy and Conservation Program to rehabilitate existing low-income housing to improve energy efficiency while using locally harvested, renewable, carbon-neutral sources like wood pellets to meet the remaining energy needs.

Newly renovated by West CAP, this historic building on Main Street in Boyceville serves as the nonprofit’s regional food pantry and has four energy efficient apartments in the second level. Photo credit: West CAP/Peter KildeWith the ambitious goal of reducing energy use in old homes by 80%, West CAP begins with an extensive home energy audit. Applying technology gleaned from the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Alaska (Kilde jokes that West CAP turns old homes into “giant beer coolers”), the West CAP team first places four-inches of insulation on the foundation, walls, and ceilings as well as on the six-inch stud walls. Windows are sealed with energy-efficient glazing, and attic insulation is bumped up to R60. The team installs 95%-efficient Energy Recovery Ventilation or Heat Recovery Ventilation systems to exchange fresh air from outside with exhaust air from the home to ensure interior air quality. 

Once West CAP has lowered energy use, it turns to on-site renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels to provide the daily energy it takes to run a household. Solmetric Suneye technology helps the team make use of the solar potential for each site. Where possible, solar hot water systems provide up to 71% of the energy needed for heating household water. Photovoltaic panels provide electrical generation while solar hot air panels supplement home heating. When photovoltaics aren’t an option, West CAP uses other renewable technologies like passive design, geothermal and air-source heat pumps, and off-peak thermal storage that aid in the efficient heating and cooling of homes.

Finding the right combination of renewable technologies and efficiency efforts requires an investment of time and money. It can be a complicated process, but the payoff is real. The first electrical bill for one of West CAP’s recently retrofitted duplexes in Menomonie was a $354 credit.

In Kilde’s opinion, the shift from conventional energy use to renewables is a fundamental but essential change: “The systems for harvesting clean, free energy on-site are qualitatively different from the systems fro burning fossil fuels. This is a paradigm shift, not just a matter of cost-and-benefit analysis or pay-back analysis.”


Conservation and efficiency practices are making their way into the corporate world as well, and small and large business owners alike are realizing that these practices are good for the Earth and the bottom line.

Just down the Mississippi River Valley, a physician-led health care company in La Crosse has set a goal of becoming completely energy independent in 2014. This is not a typo. Through an ambitious sustainability plan called Envision, Gundersen Health System will achieve energy independence across all of its facilities this year.

“As a healthcare organization, it is our responsibility to not only take care of our patients in a hospital or clinic, but to help our patients and communities stay well,” says CEO Dr. Jeff Thompson. Under Thompson’s leadership, Gundersen’s Envision program has utilized a strategy it calls “Two-Sided Green” to both reduce costs and reduce harmful emissions.

In the top 1% of energy efficient hospitals in the Upper Midwest, Gundersen’s new eco-friendly Legacy facility in La Crosse is heated and cooled by a geothermal heat pump system. Photo credit: Gundersen Health SystemThe plan began with the bottom line. In 2008, Gundersen’s leadership realized that their utility bills were increasing by $350,000 each year. They conducted energy audits at their largest facilities to identify where they could improve efficiency. These audits revealed that Gundersen could reduce energy use by 25% and save more than $1 million each year by upgrading heating, cooling, and lighting systems and by training employees in basic sustainability practices like recycling.

Partnering with the state’s Focus on Energy program to implement these low-cost and no-cost measures, the Envision initiative was born. Improving energy efficiency required relatively little financial investment from Gundersen and quickly resulted in lower utility bills. This success demonstrated to Thompson and Gundersen leaders that environmental thinking makes good financial sense. 

Soon, Gundersen Health System began to look for other projects. They collaborated with Organic Valley to build a wind farm near Cashton and built their own in Lewiston, Minnesota. They installed solar heating systems and solar panels in campus buildings and parking structures. They built a biomass boiler using locally produced wood chips to heat their La Crosse campus. They even partnered with La Crosse County to build a generator that uses landfill biogas to power their Onalaska campus. The landfill gas, which is piped 1.5 miles from the La Crosse County landfill, is used to fuel a 1,137 kilowatt reciprocating engine generator set with heat recovery. While the system is sized to completely offset campus electrical energy usage, the heat recovery is enough to provide heat and hot water to campus buildings. So, the generated electricity it is sold to Xcel Energy (the local utility) for an annual profit of $300,000 after paying about $200,000 per year for the landfill biogas.

While they were enhancing their facility infrastructure, Gundersen also began purchasing locally grown and produced food for patient and employee meals as well as underwriting initiatives to make healthy food available to local communities. A staple of almost every hospital, Styrofoam trays and containers were eliminated from Gundersen’s food service as a part of a comprehensive waste management system that also keeps seventeen tons of food out of landfills each year. More than 30 recycling initiatives cover everything from the usual glass-paper-plastic suspects to surgical wrap.

 Certainly Gundersen has benefitted from Envision, but patients and the community have as well through lower health care costs and a cleaner environment. Money saved on energy bills has helped keep costs to patients below the inflation rate. Harder to measure individually, but still very real, Gundersen’s clean energy projects have kept pollutants out of the environment—and out of patients’ bodies. 

In January of this year Gundersen began accepting patients at a new hospital in La Crosse, which is in the top 1% of energy-efficient hospitals in the Upper Midwest. Envision leader Jeff Rich attributes Gundersen’s success to executive leadership and committed employees. There isn’t just one single department working on sustainability. “Everyone’s on the green team,” he says. “It’s everyone’s job.” 


As the nation’s Dairyland, cows are big business here in Wisconsin. And while our 5.6 million citizens easily outnumber our 1.3 million milking cows, cows produce much more solid waste than humans do. In fact, Wisconsin’s dairy cows produce as much wastewater as 35 million people.

That’s a lot of waste to deal with, not to mention that manure also produces methane and nitrous oxide. While less common than carbon dioxide, both gases are critical to climate change equations. While methane has twenty times the warming power of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is even more harmful, doing 317 times the damage.

Fortunately, dairy is one of the most forward-thinking industries in the country. In 2008, a coalition of U.S. dairy producers pledged to slash greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020. A five-year, $10 million federal research grant was recently awarded to a UW–Madison-led project to examine the entire dairy production system to improve efficiency while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

And while there are many pieces to the emissions puzzle, advanced technology like biodigesters will be a big part of the solution. Biodigesters are essentially huge, closed tanks where manure and other organic wastes are broken down by bacteria. The process yields useful products like methane gas, nutrient-rich wastewater, and sterile solids. Captured gas can be used to generate electricity or heat, wastewater can be used to fertilize crops, and sterile solids can be used as animal bedding. More importantly, capturing and using methane reduces climate change twice: once by capturing damaging methane, and again by using it to replace fossil fuels. 

Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of commercial farm-based biodigesters, and new technology is being developed to facilitate biodigester operation at small- and medium-sized farms as well. An active supply chain infrastructure currently supports more than 130 systems at farms, food processing plants, landfills, and municipal wastewater treatment facilities. But we could harness four or five times more methane gas energy if we strive to match Germany, the world’s leader in biodigester integration. (This level of digester use would be equivalent to removing the greenhouse gas emissions from 6 billion miles of car travel.)

While University of Wisconsin researchers are investigating further changes in manure handling that might minimize nitrous oxide production—indeed, they are examining every step in the dairy production chain for greenhouse gas efficiencies—ultimately it’s the farmers assembling these solutions in the real world. Wholly dependent on the condition of the land and the weather that affects it, farmers can’t help but notice the changing climate.

Long before many of his colleagues, John Vrieze saw the need for a carbon neutral dairy operation. The founder and owner of Emerald Dairy in St. Croix County, Vrieze owns 2,600 cows across three dairies: Baldwin, Emerald, and Emerald II.

A tour group in the Future Farm Food and Fuel greenhouse during a beginning aquaculture workshop. The 27,000-square-foot complex produces lettuce and other leafy, green vegetables as well as fish. Photo credit: Heidi Clausen/Eau Claire Leader Telegram

In 2004, Vrieze began planning for a digester to spur the greening of his farms. Digesters often require sticker-shocking capital investment. The price tag for Emerald was no exception: $3 million for the digester and its supporting technology. Vrieze patched together funding from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, the University of Minnesota, investors, bank loans, and his own pocketbook.

Today Vrieze’s digester provides gas for his farms and for 875 homes in the nearby village of Baldwin. Excess gas is piped into the Northern Pipeline System and purchased by the manufacturing company 3M to supplement its green energy portfolio. 

But biogas is not the only by product of digestion. Vrieze quickly realized the many potential uses for the digester wastewater. Used as fertilizer for the farm, he reduced his fertilizer purchase by 95%. He added phosphorus-capture technology, which limited the potential for harmful runoff into nearby streams and also produced fertilizer pellets that he could sell.

With every improvement the water became a little cleaner, and eventually Vrieze was able to eliminate his now obsolete manure lagoons. His treated wastewater was clean enough to discharge directly into nearby Dry Run Creek.

But Vrieze wasn’t done; he installed another digester at his 1,050-cow Baldwin Dairy. Here the wastewater was used to feed Future Farm, a high tech greenhouse and fish farm cofounded by Vrieze and Steve Meyer. Gas and heat from the digester provide the energy. The wastewater flows first to the fish farm, nurturing thousands of tilapia. Then the aquaponics greenhouse uses the tilapia water to grow herbs, cleaning the water at the same time.

It’s a lot of moving parts and economic returns are not yet complete, but, after some down and neutral years, profit is on the rise. Vrieze, Meyer, Emerald Dairy, and Future Farm are breaking trail towards sustainable, closed-loop food systems that will help green Wisconsin’s dairy industry.


While Climate Forward: A New Road Map for Wisconsin’s Climate and Energy Future details many more inspiring examples of climate change leadership by communities and businesses in Wisconsin, the question remains: What is keeping the rest of Wisconsin from moving forward with plans to address climate change?

To begin with, because Wisconsin doesn’t have an integrated, long-term energy plan, it is difficult to articulate to the public the needs, risks, and trade-offs involved in our energy options. 

In some ways, we’ve grown complacent, comfortable with the status quo. For years Wisconsin was a leader in energy efficiency, but now we’ve fallen to the middle of the pack. Today we are investing less and less in efficiency, despite the potential for long-term gains. Integrating new technologies into our aging electrical grid will require extremely complicated changes to its physical structure as well as to utility business models. Because we know how to run a fossil fuel-dependent energy system, the familiar is an easy default—especially in the absence of a comprehensive state climate and energy plan.

A divisive political environment means missed opportunities for civil dialogue in the policy arena. Lately, Wisconsin has developed a reputation for its hostile and confusing climate for green businesses like wind energy, which sends entrepreneurs and developers to other states.

Facing similar hurdles and a lean economy, neighboring states are still attracting clean energy jobs and investment. In 2012 alone, Michigan increased its wind energy capacity to more than Wisconsin will have in total by the end of 2015. Minnesota expects to generate 25% of total electricity from renewable resources by 2025. Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota all have aggressive energy efficiency goals, while Illinois, Iowa and Michigan have adopted stronger building energy codes than Wisconsin. Neighboring states that have increased their reliance on locally produced renewable energy, such as Iowa and Minnesota, also have more stable electric rates.

Short-term thinking in both business development and real-time energy expenditures is costing us big. In 2011, we remitted $15.9 billion out of state to import our fossil fuel-based energy. This dependence makes us vulnerable to interruptions in the supply chain, unexpected price shifts, even minor spills and accidents. Wisconsin’s electric rates may become some of the highest in the region as a result of this near-sightedness. Rapidly rising propane costs and shortages during winter 2014 illustrate just how vulnerable Wisconsin businesses and families alike (especially in rural areas) are to market fluctuations. 

Do we cling to the status quo and hope it gets better? The status quo is comfortable for some, but as time goes on it brings increasingly limited options—and less and less opportunity. Change is coming. Making a plan and moving forward now will keep Wisconsin vibrant and competitive in the future.


Despite our stumbling start, Wisconsin is still poised to be a global leader in the emerging clean energy economy.

Certainly we can find ways to reduce our own state’s carbon footprint. But we can also go further, pushing for breakthroughs in conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy. The benefits of the second path include a better standard of living here in our state and the chance to export our clean energy resources and models across the world.

The road forward will require hundreds, even thousands of smart choices made by individuals and households, by communities and businesses. But there are many ways to get to our destination. A few suggestions taken from Climate Forward will help us arrive there sooner rather than later.

Be ambitious.
To have a meaningful impact on greenhouse gas emissions, cut Wisconsin’s carbon emissions 80% by 2050—a target that would align us with recommendations from the international scientific community. Most experts agree that serious reduction efforts won’t happen without settling on a price per ton for carbon emissions. While national and international efforts to price carbon are necessary, pressure from below may also be required. Wisconsin can and should be a leader here. 

Increase overall efficiency in Wisconsin by 2% each year.
By matching goals already in place in Illinois, Wisconsin could realize significant energy savings and reduce emissions. Using figures from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative projects that an annual two percent improvement in energy efficiency, over ten years, would save $3.4 billion and create more than 4,000-energy related jobs.

Commit to a minimum 1% average annual increase in renewable energy generation in Wisconsin in 2015. 
Wisconsin can realize a much larger role for solar energy, smart use of biomass, and expanded wind generation. Immature clean energy markets combined with shifting policy priorities can jeopardize market development; for example, inconsistent federal incentives hurt wind development, while Wisconsin’s changing priorities have hurt the solar industry in the state. Supporting a variety of alternatives in a measured but constant way spreads risk across multiple technologies and pathways forward.

Foster stewardship.
We are the home of conservation pioneers Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. Caring for our lands is in our blood, and we can and should explore new ways to maximize nature’s own capacities to store carbon in soil and plant tissues that support beneficial ecological processes for people and nature. And the healthier our land and waters, the more resilient they will be in the face of climate change. 

Make mobility sustainable.
Our transportation system is in need of a smart upgrade. By simply managing travel demand, encouraging off-hours freight, and setting some basic efficiency and pollution standards for cars and trucks, we can get more—a lot more—out of what we have. Future transportation investments should be guided by principles that facilitate pedestrian, bicycle, bus, and train travel, as well as automobile.

We need to help the public better understand the challenges, options, and choices we face. Free and open public conversations about climate and energy topics are essential. More minds, more voices, and more votes are needed to ethically respond to the burden that climate change places on vulnerable people here and abroad, on future generations, and on other species.

Our world faces climatic changes that threaten our health, safety, and the stability of the natural systems that sustain us. Change creates opportunity, but that opportunity comes with the responsibility to pursue options that support our people, our environment, and our economy in a global context.

We have the research capacity, the manufacturing know-how, and innovators leading the way. We have a system of world-class higher education. We have citizens, researchers, farmers, and many, many people who know how to roll up their sleeves and tackle hard challenges. 

If leaders from all walks of life in Wisconsin can more fully imagine what it will take to embrace this challenge, there’s no reason not to begin working to find ways to address climate change. We are confident that Wisconsin can chart a new climate and energy future that will truly carry us: Forward.



Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

Erik Ness has been writing about science, health, and the environment for more than two decades for publications as diverse as Discover, OnEarth, Prevention, and The Progressive. He lives in Madison.

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