What Should Be On The Roadmap To Carbon-Free Electricity In Wisconsin?

Jan 17, 2020

Wisconsin's leading energy regulator says she hopes to create a roadmap this year for how Wisconsin can get all of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050. Public Service Commission (PSC) Chairperson Rebecca Valcq announced the goal Thursday at a renewable energy conference in Madison, held by the group RENEW.

The discussion began last year, when Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order aimed at getting 100 % carbon-free electricity within 30 years. If current trends in Wisconsin continue, look for more solar and wind power, and a phasing out of coal and natural gas-fired plants that are a key part of today’s energy picture.   

READ: Upper Midwest Would Gain Most Health Benefits By Cutting Coal, Adding Renewables, Study Shows

Valcq is an Evers appointee and told the conference that she hopes to help steer the way. 

"Which is why my goal for 2020 is to come up with this roadmap. To identify where we're going to need innovation and technology to help get us there. But I have no doubt that we will get there," Valcq said.

She is a Milwaukee-based attorney, who used to represent the utility WE Energies. She tells WUWM that the roadmap won't be just her ideas.

"I think it's important that we hear from all cross sections of the industry to insure we're not missing anything. And, to figure out what's the best, most cost-effective way to get Wisconsin to zero-carbon," Valcq said.

So, can the roadmap can stay current for 30 years?

"It's going to have to be a living document that's going to change and be open to change. Right? I mean, that's the other thing, too. We can't get ourselves invested in one technology, or one way to get there, that we close ourselves off to different possibilities."

Valcq says the discussion also has to include the electrical transmission system, state building codes, energy efficiency and conservation.  

A utility-backed solar energy farm is being built near Two Rivers, Wis.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The roadmap  creation gets underway as Republicans control the Wisconsin Legislature. But at least some GOP lawmakers say they have suggestions. Rep. Adam Neylon,R-Pewaukee, says nuclear energy may have to stay in the picture, but perhaps in a different way than power is produced now at the Point Beach Nuclear Plant near Manitowoc.

"Bill Gates, for instance, his main project right now is to develop nuclear with no waste by-product. And they say they have those designs and they can do it. What we need is investment and people being able to site those things," Neylon said.

Cost is one of the key questions raised about Gates' initiative. 

READ: Microsoft Pledges To Remove From The Atmosphere All The Carbon It Has Ever Emitted

Neylon says he also supports giving consumers some incentives to purchase cleaner energy.

"Providing the structure for people to make the right choice instead of mandating that we must do this. Because ultimately, innovation and consumers are going to lead to the type of change that we want to see with renewables," Neylon said.

But Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Raine, doesn't want the road to carbon-free taking 30 years. She says there are already signs that carbon emissions are leading to a warmer planet and more intense storms. Neubauer says Lake Michigan water levels are up.

"I represent Racine, and we have a state of emergency in Racine right now because our shoreline is falling into the water. The district next to mine has a house that, one more storm, it's probably going to be in the water," Neubauer said.

Part of a wind farm in Iowa in October 2019.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay urges continuing support for the Focus On Energy program, which uses utility ratepayer dollars to help pay for some energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. 

"We've got to continue to make that program work well, to hold demand down. I think it's played an excellent role in avoiding some additional plants," Cowles said, adding that Wisconsin might be further away from fossil fuel power plants if some Focus money hadn't been diverted over the years.

READ: Construction Begins In Wisconsin On Large Solar Farms, Amid Neighbor Concerns

The question of financing will also play a part in making sure the push for carbon-free energy is inclusive. Walnut Way Conservation Corp., has been helping bring solar panels to homes and other buildings in a lower income Milwaukee neighborhoods. Executive Director Antonio Butts says private and public financial teamwork is needed to broaden the effort.

"That's exactly what it is. And again, it starts with the will and the desire to see it achieved. With the understanding it benefits us all. That's globally, as well as locally," Butts said.

Butts also hopes more African Americans and other people of color can get jobs in the renewable energy field. He says trying to get Wisconsin to carbon-free electricity can be a huge opportunity for those seeking better employment.

Support for Innovation reporting is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman.

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