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Wisconsin Wins Coal Battle, Loses Energy War

Despite its abundant wind resources, Wisconsin has been clinging with affection to coal for electrical power generation, but it looks like the bloom is off the rose. A new report identifies Wisconsin’s coal dependency as a significant drag on the state’s economy, and urges a greater effort to diversify into renewable energy sources.

File that one away under “o” for oopsies, since it was just a couple of years ago that Republican legislators in Wisconsin struck a blow against the state’s budding wind industry, which has been withering in Wisconsin while blossoming elsewhere in heartland states.

The Wisconsin Coal Report

Titled “How to Keep Wisconsin and the U.S. Competitive in a Changing Energy World,” the new report was authored by University of Wisconsin researcher Gary Radloff with graduate research assistant Shashi Dhungel.

Let’s note for the record that Radloff is well known for his extensive experience in the bioenergy sector, and Dhungel’s current area of focus is sustainable supply chain models, so a coal-friendly conclusion is hardly to be expected.

However, there’s no arguing with the basics of the situation, which is that Wisconsin’s coal dependency is catching up with it. In the coming years, ratepayers will be forced to absorb hundreds of millions of dollars in pollution control upgrades for outdated coal power plants, and the state lacks a vibrant renewable energy sector to step in when obsolete coal-fired power plants are decommissioned.

The report describes the problem as “coal lock-in:”

“…long term investments in existing high carbon energy technologies and the infrastructure to support them, such as large base load plants and electrical grids, create so-called carbon lock-in or coal lock-in. Wisconsin now has coal energy price lock-in resulting from high capital costs and long assets life spans from these energy investments.”

The numbers tell the tale: according to the report, the cost of coal for base load plants could increase 6 percent annually over the next ten years, continuing a long term rising trend that dates back to 2000.

As for the availability of abundant supplies of relatively cheap shale oil and natural gas, the export market and the looming threat of stricter pollution and land use regulations make an eventual rise all but inevitable.

Other States Say “Carpe Diem” To Wind Power

While Wisconsin wallows in coal like a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit, other states are eagerly adopting wind power as their ticket to economic growth.

One notable example is Texas, which expects to double its intrastate wind power transmission with a $7 billion project to bring wind power from remote areas of the state to Dallas and other big cities.

Kansas is showing how states can leverage renewable resources to bring more dollars in. The planned Grain Belt Express interstate transmission line will bring Kansas wind power to points East, hopefully in time to beat the competition from offshore wind power from eastern seaboard states through the Atlantic Wind Consortium.

As one final example, let’s take the case of a Missouri wind farm, which is enabling farmers to squeeze more value out of their property while plowing new revenues into the local tax base for schools, roads and other civic infrastructure.

Whither Wisconsin?

Perhaps Wisconsin is now looking back with regret on its actions right around this time two years ago, when the Republican-led legislature abruptly halted a long term project to streamline the state’s rules for siting wind farms.

The resulting uncertainty reduced Wisconsin’s once-thriving wind industry to a trickle (and you can’t throw the blame on last year’s uncertainty over the federal wind tax credit, since the wind sector in comparable states has been roaring along).

In any case, there are at least two well known Kansans who are probably having a nice chuckle over difference between Wisconsin’s travails and the emerging wind energy profile in Kansas, those being Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries and its coal trading and transportation company, Koch Carbon, of which one subsidiary is the coal power plant supplier C. Reiss Coal Company.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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