By Tom Still
MADISON – In the fossil fuels economy, Wisconsin is a donor state. There’s no oil, natural gas or coal under the state’s rolling terrain, so millions of dollars leave Wisconsin every day to buy energy from the many “beneficiary” states and nations of our fossil fuel age.
Wisconsin’s donor-state status isn’t going to change soon, despite the best efforts of its businesses, governments and citizens to conserve. While part of the answer, conservation alone will not take Wisconsin off the fossil fuels dependency list. It will require cost-effective technologies to provide other sources of energy to light our homes, power our vehicles and run our businesses.
The operative phrase is “cost-effective.” The marketplace has yet to decide what technologies will ease our transition from fossil fuels, which will remain a primary source for decades to come, to whatever comes next. Until that happens, policymakers should be careful to walk the line between encouraging energy research and innovation – and prematurely putting all of the taxpayers’ eggs in one basket.
Gov. Jim Doyle announced last week that his administration wants to fund almost $80 million in loans, grants and tax incentives to boost biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. The money would be earmarked for companies looking to expand production and use of renewable fuels. In addition, Doyle proposed tax incentives for gas stations and fleet operators to invest in E-85 ethanol and biodiesel tanks and pumps.
Two days later, Doyle announced that four University of Wisconsin campuses — Green Bay, Oshkosh, River Falls and Stevens Point – will take part in a pilot program to make their campuses completely energy independent within five years. The schools would become the first state-owned facilities capable of acquiring or producing renewable energy equivalent to their consumption. In addition to conservation technologies and practices, the projects could involve solar or wind power, fuel cells or greater reliance on renewable fuels, such as biomass.
These are laudable ideas. They illustrate how government can lead by example or by underwriting projects that might otherwise not take place. However, no one should be confused about one hard fact: The payoff is years away.
The market is trying to determine what technologies can help in the near-term (meaning, five years or less) versus those that won’t be economical for decades. Private investors are hedging their bets, environmentalists are fretting over what’s “sustainable,” and technologists are urging the public not to expect miracles overnight. And if you think “not-in-my-backyard” attitudes are confined to debates over electric power line routes, try proposing the construction of an ethanol plant or a wind turbine farm.
None of this is to suggest Wisconsin shouldn’t invest in biofuels. The state would be foolish not to do so, given its wealth of forests, fibers and waste that could be converted to fuel. But bio-energy isn’t the only game in town.
If reducing greenhouse emissions is a goal, and it should be, Wisconsin should also keep an open mind to expanding the generation of nuclear power. Yes, most environmentalists are still wearing “No More Three Mile Islands” buttons on their lapels. But it has been nearly 27 years since the accident in Middleton, Pa., and no one was killed or injured. Meanwhile, people die every day from coal mining, coal transportation and breathing coal particulates in the air. Nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gases; fossil sources are contributing to global climate change, even if that change is mostly natural.
Worldwide, 28 nuclear plants are under construction. Sixteen plants are being planned in the United States. In Wisconsin, which relies on nuclear power for 20 percent of its electricity, two existing nuclear plants are 30 years old. What happens when those plants are finally retired? That’s a gap that won’t be plugged by sawdust and switchgrass alone.
Wisconsin has a moratorium on building nuclear power plants, a 1980s law passed amidst Three Mile Island hysteria and legitimate concerns, at the time, about on-site waste storage and overall plant costs. It’s time to re-examine that moratorium. Around the world, innovation in nuclear energy generation is transforming an entire industry. In Wisconsin, one non-lethal accident in Pennsylvania more than a quarter-century ago stands in the way of innovation.
Wisconsin state government doesn’t have to invest in nuclear power. Just remove the shackles so others can. If the state can encourage innovation in biofuels, it can at least remove impediments to exploring the potential for “next-generation” nuclear energy.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.