Unless someone strikes oil in Oshkosh, discovers natural gas in Necedah or mines coal in Colfax, the state of Wisconsin is destined to remain largely dependent – perhaps for decades – on outside sources of energy that power its homes, businesses and vehicles.
That economic dependency can be slowly but steadily reduced, however, if Wisconsin builds on its emerging expertise around development of new sources of energy.
Two recent news events sounded alarm bells for those who believe Wisconsin has the right combination of natural resources, research capacity and private sector know-how to begin charting a new energy future. In rapid order, Gov. Scott Walker introduced regulations that would make it harder to build wind-power projects in some parts of Wisconsin and he cancelled plans to convert a UW-Madison power plant from coal to biomass.
There may be logical reasons for the new administration’s specific actions. Some people have complained that current state rules allow wind generators to be built too close to private property, and the conversion of the UW-Madison’s Charter Street plant to burn switchgrass pellets was estimated to be $75 million more expensive than burning natural gas.
The larger danger is that Wisconsin could lose momentum around the development of much-needed energy technologies – advanced wind, next-generation biofuels, energy storage systems and much more – if the message is sent that energy and conservation innovation isn’t welcome or valued.
But that’s not what Walker is trying to say. Still, his position could be politicized in rapid order unless opponents stick to the high ground of explaining what’s at stake for Wisconsin over time and how its private and public sectors are poised to help.
Take wind energy, which has always attracted its share of “not-in-my-backyard complaints” despite a wealth of studies that dispute major health and safety concerns. While not all of Wisconsin is ideal for wind farms, the economics of wind power have improved steadily – to the point Wisconsin utilities are laying plans to import more wind power from Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Wisconsin’s manufacturing foundation has given rise to companies that build parts for wind turbines, and its historic strengths in batteries and electrical controls might someday yield storage systems that hold wind-generated electricity. That could transform wind from an intermittent power source to electrical power that more closely matches peak demands.
Conversely, the potential for biomass as a source of electric generation is still emerging. While current federal and state goals compel greater use of biomass (tree trimmings, wood and plants such as switchgrass), the economics are sketchy when compared to wind. It’s not just Walker who has questioned the cost of biomass projects – but watchdog groups such as the Citizens’ Utility Board. A proposed biomass plant in the Ashland area was sidelined by Xcel Energy in November because the utility company was worried about costs, even with ready sources of biomass within a short drive in the forests of northern Wisconsin. Another proposed project in central Wisconsin, proposed by We Energies, is under review by the state Public Service Commission.
Again, none of this diminishes the long- and even mid-term potential for biomass. Switchgrass, for example, is highly efficient in terms of net energy produced, can be grown on marginal lands and could become an important cash crop for Wisconsin farmers. With power plants, however, the trick is getting enough raw material transported at the right cost.
In addition to wind and biomass, Wisconsin’s emerging energy technologies include next-generation biofuels (such as cellulosic ethanol and “green” gasoline), new engine technologies, advancements in nuclear fission and fusion research, energy storage and solar power. Through the state’s engineering colleges and other centers such as the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, work continues on a mix of technologies that will position Wisconsin for the years and decades ahead.
Wisconsin has a huge economic stake in building a more diverse, cost-effective energy base. It also has the research base, natural resources and industry mix to do so. That won’t happen overnight, but a Wisconsin that is “open for business” today should also keep it eyes on energy options for tomorrow.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.