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How to keep the lights on, cut carbon emissions from generating electricity in Wisconsin

Thursday's RENEW Wisconsin 2023 Summit, at Monona Terrace, in Madison.
Chuck Quirmbach
Thursday's RENEW Wisconsin 2023 Summit, at Monona Terrace, in Madison.

Researchers have been looking at what changes might take place in the production of electricity in Wisconsin in order to see big drops in carbon dioxide emissions. Experts say big declines are needed to reduce the threat from climate change.

Gov. Tony Evers wants to have net zero in greenhouse gas emissions across the state economy by 2050. That would mean big cuts to air pollutants, with the remaining carbon emissions being harmlessly absorbed by the atmosphere, forests, and so on.

Andrew Kell is a policy analyst with RENEW Wisconsin. He says a recent study his group did with the environmental group Clean Wisconsin looks at the decarbonization of the electric grid. Kell says the study's conclusion is a huge expansion of clean energy resources will be needed—some of it in other states.

"The model is going to choose to import over nine gigawatts (a gigawatt is one billion watts of power, the same produced by three million solar panels) of solar, and over six gigawatts of wind. It's gonna require a lot more transmission. The model found about three to four times the amount of transmission that Wisconsin currently has, is going to be needed to serve these resources coming from out of state. The model found this is the most cost-effective approach to achieve a zero carbon future by 2050," Kell says.

Kell says the study also used a computer model with no expansion of high-voltage transmission lines and found an even larger growth of renewables and other power sources would be needed in Wisconsin.

The study presumes some of the new electricity supply would go to re-charging electric cars, as Wisconsin and other states try to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector.

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) has also been looking ahead, with a document done every couple of years called a Strategic Energy Assessment. Commissioner Tyler Huebner says through 2028, the PSC forecasts reduced use of coal for energy generation, and continued growth in rooftop solar and large solar farms. The projected result is a 58% reduction in carbon emissions from the electric sector in Wisconsin, compared to 2005.

"You know, which is substantial, in my view," Huebner says.

Huebner says the PSC engineering staff has also been running some models that look as far ahead as 2039. To get to 60% carbon emission cuts from the electric sector by that time, and look for more generation from natural gas, which is a bit cleaner—carbon wise—than coal.

"You start building more gas, more natural gas, or again, some kind of combustible fuel. Again this is just to meet the adequacy, not an environmental goal beyond the 60%. Not a net zero, just the adequacy of providing people what they need," Huebner says.

Huebner says to get to 80% carbon cuts by 16 years from now, there would still be some use of natural gas, but more solar and battery storage of renewables, "And a humongous amount of wind. This is really intuitive. It makes sense, right? Because solar is really challenged in the winter."

But there's also the wild card of continued energy innovation—improvements in technology and how it's used.

Plus, there is the potential power of public input.

Taylor McNair is with the California-based energy consulting firm GridLab. He says recently in Minnesota, when there was transparency with a utility planning document called an IRP there was a good result.

"There was such a robust record, such robust intervention, that many of our intervenors submitted alternative proposals for a retiring coal plant. That retiring coal plant is going to be replaced with a combination of solar and new transmission and battery storage, as opposed to the gas plant that was proposed by the utility," McNair says.

McNair and the others spoke Thursday in Madison at an annual conference organized by RENEW Wisconsin.

Several speakers said there will likely be a lot of federal money to help with the transition to cleaner power through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.

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