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The Promise and Reality of Green Energy in WisconsinListen to the Series: June 10 - 14, 2013Green energy caught a spark decades ago - when fuel prices skyrocketed, smog blanketed cities and acid rain was detected in lakes. Since then, Wisconsin has sprouted alternative modes of powering everything from buildings to cars to parking meters. Yet most of our energy still comes from fossil fuels. WUWM will explore the growth of green energy in Wisconsin, in the Project Milwaukee: Power Switch series.During Morning Edition and Lake Effect, WUWM News journalists and Lake Effect producers will examine the factors prompting interest in renewable energy, and how Wisconsin compares with the rest of the country.Community ForumOn Monday, June 10 at Discovery World, WUWM's public forum featured perspectives from utilities, academia, environmentalists and policymakers. View a list of the panelists. The forum will air on Lake Effect Friday, June 14 at 10 a.m.Contribute Your IdeasWhat questions would you like WUWM to cover regarding green energy in Wisconsin?Please share your questions and comments with us.

Wisconsin's Power Grid

The majority of energy the U.S. produces comes from coal. The same holds true for Wisconsin. However, natural gas has been gaining, because producers have found a cheaper way to extract it, using sand.

Then there remains a sustained effort among small players to generate renewable energy.  LaToya Dennis examines our region’s power grid. WE Energies provides electricity and gas for more than two million customers in Wisconsin. If you look at the utility’s 2013 graph of the fuel it uses to generate power, more than 43 percent comes from coal.

A whitish plum pours out of tall smoke stacks along Lake Michigan in Oak Creek.

“That is 99 percent water vapor.”

Brian Manthey is spokesman for WE Energies.

According to the U.S. Energy Department, the Oak Creek operation is among the last coal-fired plants to go online. Many have been turning to natural gas, but Manthey says WE Energies knew coal would remain a viable option. So in addition to building this facility, it converted others to gas and maintained a diversified portfolio.

“Whether it’s Nuclear, renewable, natural gas, coal, we’ve been able to incorporate those in so that we’re able to be flexible for our customers so that when we buy fuel for any of those facilities, we’re able to so in a way that’s most cost effective for the customers,” Manthey says.

As for concerns that burning fossil fuels dirties the air, Manthey says the utility has cut emissions by 80 percent since 2000.

The second biggest source of its fuel is natural gas, followed by nuclear energy. WE Energies buys its nuclear power from the Point Beach plant.

When it comes to renewable energy, the utility gets five percent from green sources. It had to start tapping those, when the state mandated years ago, that Wisconsin get 10 percent of its energy from renewables by 2015.

The Forest County Potawatomi tribe will soon open its new waste plant.

WE Energies has since built a few wind farms and a biomass operation but, purchases a large portion of its green energy.

In just a few months, the utility will start buying energy from the Forest County Potawatomi.

It’s building a plant in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley to turn waste from the food and beverage industry into power.

Tribal Attorney General Jeff Crawford joined me on a tour.

Crawford says these massive tanks will one day hold 2.6 million gallons of waste. It should generate two megawatts of power.

“That would be about a third of what the tribe uses as a whole.”

Crawford says ultimately, the Potawatomi want to produce all the energy they need, from clean sources.

“One of the things that we’ve done is just listen to what the elders have been telling us. The environment is changing, the leaves are changing, the species of the animals are changing, their migration periods are changing the weather patterns are changing. They were seeing this way before the scientists were seeing this, because they were out in the woods,” Crawford says.

For the first seven years, the tribe will sell all its power to WE Energies.

While Wisconsin is shooting for 10 percent renewable power by 2015, it’s currently at eight. Neighbors Minnesota and Illinois are reaching for 25 percent renewable by 2025. Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle pushed for the same here, but concerns swirled about costs.

Already, the cost of electricity in Wisconsin is 13th highest in the nation.

Bob Norcross works for the state Public Service Commission. It oversees utilities.

He says costs here are high, in large part, because the state had to make big investments starting in the 1990s, to prevent power shortages.

“We had to start building a lot of power plants and transmission lines. We’ve built something like 6,000 MW to 7,000 MW of power in the state. And to put that in context, the total demand for the state is 14,000 MW to 15,000 MW,” Norcross says.

Norcross predicts the cost of electricity will creep up in other states, as they make necessary investments.

As for the future of green energy in Wisconsin’s portfolio, that decision rests with lawmakers. Right now, once the state achieves its 10 percent goal, the plan is to maintain.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.