By Tom Still
MADISON – We take it for granted the lights will always be on in Wisconsin. Sure, we know tornadoes and ice storms can temporarily bring down power lines and interrupt electrical service to our homes and businesses. But most of us believe affordable power will always be there – day in, day out – when we need it.
If only it was as easy as flipping a switch. While Wisconsin has come far in rebuilding a creaky transmission system, adding generation plants and encouraging new technologies that may save or produce power, new economic and environmental pressures mean the job is far from over.
Speaking last week at the 25th anniversary meeting of Wisconsin Public Power Inc., Gov. Jim Doyle reminded a crowd of municipal utility managers that new challenges confront the state’s energy suppliers and consumers.
While Wisconsin aspires to a “sensible and balanced energy policy,” said Doyle, the state still exists within an “isolated and precarious” transmission system that is in “desperate need of modernizing.” The American Transmission Co. transmission line slated to be built in northwest Wisconsin is a part of the answer, but more transmission capability is needed to build a reliable power grid.
Doyle said the last few years have brought on a burst of generation plant construction, which he credited in large part to the Energy Generation and Transmission Siting Act. That law has combined with other regulatory reforms to speed construction of new plants and find pathways for lines.
The permitting timeline for new plants has also been reduced, Doyle noted, as evidenced by the six-month permit process for Wisconsin Public Service Corp.’s generating plant in Weston. The governor said that plant was approved in about one-fourth the time of similar plants, and will provide “the cleanest generation of any plant ever built in Wisconsin.”
Reforming Wisconsin’s energy policy has been a bipartisan endeavor. The Legislature has pressed for regulatory reforms in the energy and manufacturing sectors. Most policymakers recognize that affordable, reliable power will attract and retain businesses – especially technology-based businesses that cannot afford power breaks.
Much work remains to be done. Hurricane Katrina has already spiked natural gas prices, and experts predict winter prices will press consumers even more. Some power plants in Wisconsin are powered by natural gas, which may always be is subject to volatile pricing.
Wisconsin is steaming toward a goal of 10 percent renewable energy (wind, biomass, solar photovoltaic and hydro are leading examples) in the state’s generation portfolio, but that will be difficult absent greater public understanding about the pros and cons of those sources.
The Governor’s Biofuels Initiative will seek to harness the state’s research assets and make greater use – over time – of our most abundant natural resources, including forest products, crops and even livestock waste. But don’t expect huge gains overnight.
Conservation remains a big part of the picture. There is no way Wisconsin can simply build or import its way into energy independence. New technologies and building methods must help us become more efficient.
Global and national trends affect Wisconsin more than most states, in part because Wisconsin doesn’t produce coal, oil or natural gas, but also because we’re geographically vulnerable. Bad weather along the Gulf Coast is just as likely to cause energy prices to rise in Wisconsin as war in the Middle East.
Innovation will become Wisconsin’s ally in the quest for more energy and better conservation. Some young companies here are engaged in cutting-edge research related to hydrogen fuels and deriving energy from wood chips before they are pulped, for example. Some of the state’s design-build firms are national leaders in passive solar energy and conservation strategies.
It cannot be taken for granted the Wisconsin will always keep the lights on. But if policymakers, utilities, researchers and consumers maintain that “sensible and balanced” approach, the dark days should be very few.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.