By Tom Still

MADISON – If the $1.2-billion coal-fired power plant proposed by Alliant Energy for the Mississippi River city of Cassville had been first in line for review by the state Public Service Commission, it might have been an easier regulatory ride. After all, this proposal has a lot going for it – not the least of which is the potential to mix huge amounts of locally produced biomass with coal.

Trouble is, the Cassville plant is third on the PSC docket when it comes to coal-fired plants, emerging for its most critical reviews after the approval of two much larger (and less appealing) plants in southeast and northeast Wisconsin. Timing isn’t necessarily everything – but the Cassville proposal exposes Wisconsin’s missed opportunity to consider other power generation options, including 21st century nuclear power.

The proposed plant in Cassville, which lies about halfway between Prairie du Chien and Dubuque, Iowa, on the Mississippi, would generate about 240 megawatts of electricity from coal and up to 60 megawatts from wood and non-food crops such as switchgrass and corn stalks. Almost everyone can get excited about that prospect, from Gov. Jim Doyle – who has urged greater use of biomass – to local farmers and foresters, who will supply about 300,000 tons of fuel for the plant each year. The conservationists are happy, too, because switchgrass provides an excellent habitat for birds and helps to protect against soil erosion.

The plant has other advantages. First, because of how the electric transmission grid works, it would allow Wisconsin to import more wind-generated electricity from Iowa and beyond. Second, it could be supplied with coal by barge or rail, which increases reliability. Third, it will be built within the footprint of an existing power plant. Fourth, it will bring on the retirement of a much older and dirtier 65-megawatt plant near Sheboygan. Fifth, it enjoys substantial community support from people who are looking forward to the construction jobs, about 40 permanent plant jobs and a renewed ability to attract industry.

At the end of the day, however, it’s still a coal plant. Coal is a leading contributor to greenhouse gases, mainly in the form of carbon dioxide, and a major source of mercury and particulates, as well. Burning biomass doesn’t really reduce carbon emissions all that much, except for the fact the biomass soaks up carbon dioxide while it’s growing – only to release it upon burning. There is no such thing as “clean coal,” only cleaner coal plants as compared to the conventional models.

The PSC will need to keep a wary eye on national and international restrictions on carbon emissions. At some point, those rules may require Wisconsin generation plants to collectively fall below a prescribed limit, or to “sell” the excess carbon in a market-based trading system that rewards those who pollute the least. A missed calculation could cost ratepayers additional millions of dollars.

Across the nation, coal-fired plants are encountering resistance, in part because of rising concern over greenhouse gases and the climate changes they are accelerating. But Wisconsin will need more power over time, and there are limited ways to obtain it. More transmission lines? Sure, but cries of “not in my back yard” are always loud. Renewable energy? Of course, but even the most optimistic scenarios for wind, solar and biomass don’t meet projected needs. Conservation? Probably the best bet, but businesses and homeowners must invest first in order to see results.

That leaves nuclear power, which currently meets about 20 percent of Wisconsin’s demand. It could have been on the horizon to produce even more if not for a state moratorium on building new nuclear generators, mostly a holdover from the Three Mile Island scare nearly 30 years ago. If the moratorium was lifted tomorrow, however, it might be too late for a utility to justify investing in a safe, next-generation nuclear power plant. With new coal plants coming on line, the need for more power will become harder to demonstrate.

As coal plants go, the Cassville proposal may be a good one. Then again, it may represent a point of no return for Wisconsin’s energy strategy.

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