By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – Whether it’s the Trump administration order to scrap the federal Clean Power Plan or legislation to jettison renewable energy goals for Wisconsin state agencies, it seems like a grim time for advocates of wind, solar and other clean energy technologies.
Less grim is this reality: The energy marketplace has already embraced renewables as part of a balanced portfolio.
Despite President Trump’s oft-repeated affinity for coal and a recent spike in U.S. production, energy experts don’t expect a long-term surge in coal production for power plants. There are two main reasons: More natural gas plants are coming on line and renewable sources, mainly wind, are filling the energy gap in many parts of the country.
That transition is not only because the Obama-era Clean Power Plan compelled utilities and industry to burn less coal. The shift is mostly because market prices, consumer demand for clean energy and changing technologies have made renewables more attractive – and sped the retirement of less efficient coal-burning plants.
In 2015, according to a state report, wind power made up two-thirds of Wisconsin’s renewable energy supply. Solar energy, organic matter used as fuel, and hydroelectric power accounted for the other one-third. Coal-fired, nuclear and natural gas plants still supply the bulk of Wisconsin’s energy needs, but renewables are grabbing more of the market share.
More than two-thirds of Wisconsin’s wind power is not generated on Wisconsin wind farms. It comes from wind turbines to the west – primarily Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas – over transmission lines that carry electricity from where the wind blows to where power is needed.
Some 345-kilovolt transmission lines are in place, and work continues on completing the system and making the Midwest less reliant on coal and natural gas. One project on the books is the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line, which would span about 125 miles from northeast Iowa to the town of Middleton in Dane County.
Proponents say the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line would improve the overall reliability of the regional and local transmission grid, reduce costs over time and provide a conduit for renewable energy – primarily wind power. Environmental groups such as Wind on the Wires and RENEW Wisconsin support the project mainly because they see wind power as reducing Wisconsin’s reliance on coal, a heavy contributor to greenhouse gases, while spurring the regional wind industry.
Wind on the Wires estimates the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line will advance 10 wind farms in four states, help avoid 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, power more than 400,000 homes and save 757 million gallons of water each year.
RENEW Wisconsin has estimated a $5 billion investment in transmission lines will unlock $50 billion in wind energy investment in the upper Midwest.
“The cost of wind has come down about two-thirds in the last decade and some Wisconsin utilities are signing contracts for wind power purely because it’s the lowest-cost option,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin. “The power grid is changing and it’s changing in favor of renewables.”
Opponents wonder if more electrical power is needed, based on economic growth and improved conservation strategies. Others question proposed routes for the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line. One proposed route follows existing roads and right-of-way but the other, more controversial route, is largely “greenfield” in nature.
The need for transmission lines, Wisconsin’s share of the costs and possible routes are subject to review by the state Public Service Commission.
Fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas aren’t going away anytime soon. However, the share of U.S. electricity generation met by renewables has grown to 15 percent from 8.5 percent a decade ago. Consumer demand and market forces likely have as much to do with that growth as government policies.
The Midwest can continue to wean itself off coal without overpaying for emerging energy sources such as wind. Transmission lines that efficiently tap into regional wind farms is a part of that transition, no matter how hard the White House tries to rescue the coal industry.