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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

Could Wisconsin Utilities Go Carbon-Free By 2050?

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The We Energies Valley Power Plant shown from the Hank Aaron State Trail in February 2006, before the plant's fuel source was converted from coal to natural gas, which was completed in 2015.

Gov. Tony Evers' nominee as chair of the Public Service Commission of WisconsinRebecca Valcq, faced several questions about carbon-free utilities Tuesday during a confirmation hearing.

In his state budget proposal, Evers wants to require Wisconsin's utilities to be carbon-free within 30 years. One aim is to reduce power plant emissions linked to climate change. But it would mean eventually halting the use of coal and natural gas at several electricity plants around the state, including We Energies facilities in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley and in Oak Creek. 

Read: Gas Tax, Federal Money For Medicaid Included In Evers' Budget Address

The Public Service Commission (PSC) would oversee much of the change to renewable fuels. Valcq says the governor's plan is achievable, telling members of the State Senate Committee on Utilities and Housing that she doesn't know the effect on electricity rates but says it's something to find out.

"Be pro-active, instead of waiting and sitting back and reactive," she says.

Valcq says the PSC is sending a rate analyst to an upcoming conference that looks at the ongoing cost of electricity plants that are being retired — and how much ratepayers would be on the hook, "Because that's the million dollar question, what do you do with the cost."

She was also asked whether Wisconsin electricity supplies would be reliable, if utilities go carbon-free. She says, "It is definitely something I think about, and when I mention things like grid resiliency, that in my mind is what that cuts to the heart of."

In other words, Valcq says, can the regional electrical grid adapt to more intermittent generation from sources like wind or solar power? She says more breakthroughs with temporarily storing renewable energy in large, sophisticated batteries may be key.

"I just don't know if we have storage to that magnitude yet. And we've got a few decades," Valcq says.

Valcq used to work for the Milwaukee law firm of Quarles and Brady, and for years, represented We Energies. Despite that, a consumer group, the Citizens Utility Board, Tuesday joined several power companies in registering in favor of Valcq's nomination to the PSC.   

Madison climate change activist Peter Anderson urges the Senate committee to ask Valcq her views on possible current steps to reduce greenhouse gases. "It's all fine and good to have noble goals and aspirations that don't fall due until after we're all dead," Anderson says.

Specifically, Anderson wants clarity on whether the state bans third-parties like nonprofits from helping customers pay for solar panels. It's an issue in a current Milwaukee dispute involving We Energies. 

But the committee adjourned without asking Valcq, and will vote on her nomination later.

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