By Tom Still

MADISON – Translating the aspirations of political leaders into real policies and action isn’t always easy, especially when the goal is changing how our economy uses energy and from what sources it is generated.

In Wisconsin, however, a combination of researchers, private-sector leaders and policymakers are taking seriously the challenge of building a brighter energy future – and finding no shortage of ways to come together to talk about it.

In his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush repeated what he has said in the past: It’s time to break our addiction to oil.

“To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology. Our security, our prosperity, and our environment all require reducing our dependence on oil,” Bush said.

In his Jan. 23 State of the State speech, Gov. Jim Doyle sounded a similar message. The global threat of climate change is undeniable.

“Temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere have reached their warmest point in over 2,000 years,” Doyle said. “Our nation’s dependence on foreign oil must end, but drilling our way out of this crisis is not the answer.  We must invent and innovate our way to a cleaner, safer energy future.”

Nationally and in Wisconsin, there has been progress. Researchers such as those who will work around the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at UW-Madison will examine ways to produce cellulosic ethanol from wood, plants and other non-food sources. Companies such as Virent Energy Systems and C5.6 Technologies in the Madison area are focused on generating new types of fuels; companies such as Orion Energy Systems in Plymouth are leaders in conservation technologies.

But a great deal more remains to be done. The urgency is only in part about global climate change, which the vast majority of scientists agree is real and tied to our society’s release of carbon atoms (oil and coal) stored millions of years ago when natural processes slowly cleaned the Earth’s nearly poisoned atmosphere of excess carbon. We’ve been releasing that stored carbon pretty much overnight, in geologic terms.

It’s also about energy security – not relying on unstable governments and nations around the world – and creating a new economy less tethered to coal and oil.

There’s no shortage of interest in getting it done.

-    This week in Milwaukee, a conference involving industry leaders (paper and pulp, food processing, metal casting and more) and government regulators will focus on reducing industrial energy use intensity.
-    On Feb. 4 in Madison, the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative will host a conference on using Wisconsin’s “Green Tier” law to foster more environmental and economic cooperation. Go to to learn more.
-    On Feb. 11, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., will join former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chair James Hoecker at a “Coping with Climate Change” conference in Madison. This conference will bring together energy experts with Wisconsin, Midwest and Washington, D.C. perspectives to discuss the ins and outs of how energy providers, energy distributors and energy regulators are coping with the prospect of broad and rapid climate change. E-mail to learn more or to attend.
-    On April 16-17, a mix of partners, including the Wisconsin Technology Council, will host at conference at UW-Stevens Point to explore the economics and business opportunities associated with biofuels made from cellulose. It’s a conference targeted to Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, with have vast forest lands and existing paper and pulp industries.

As Doyle said in his State of the State speech, Wisconsin can become “the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy” if it enacts the right incentives and policies. Renewable energy alone won’t solve all our problems, of course, but it’s reassuring to know Wisconsin can be a part of the answer.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.