Clean Power Wisconsin coal dependency

Published on May 3rd, 2013 | by Tina Casey


Wisconsin Wins Coal Battle, Loses Energy War

May 3rd, 2013 by  

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.

Wisconsin coal dependency

Wisconsin coal terminal by Beige Alert

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the coming years, ratepayers will be forced to absorb hundreds of millions of dollars in pollution control upgrades for outdated coal power plants, and the state lacks a vibrant renewable energy sector to step in when obsolete coal-fired power plants are decommissioned.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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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • It never ceases to amaze me that people are arguing that wind power is immature or uneconomic, when it is already a huge and growing industry worldwide, and provides more than 25% of grid electricity in several states today. As distributed generation, demand side management, and grid scale storage all reach maturity, the problem of intermittency will go away. These technologies are all advancing by leaps and bounds, but you won’t hear about it on Fox news, people.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You nailed it, Bruce.

      The folks who get their information from Rupert Murdoch (Fox, Wall Street Journal) or Malcolm Forbes’ bad seed are often badly misinformed.

      It’s like they’re at 30,000 feet in a 747 and arguing that man will never fly.

  • Steeple

    I imagine people in Wisconsin appreciate coal fired power on those days when it’s calm and 10 below zero. Wind will always be handicapped by the fact that it blows most when needed least; that is, in the spring/fall and at night vs the day.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The people in Wisconsin really appreciate coal when they have to spend their tax and health insurance dollars to treat coal-produced illness. They practically stand up and applaud when people die from coal.

      Coal sucks. There are clean, affordable ways to generate our electricity. There’s no need to harm ourselves and the plant just in order to watch TV.

      • Steeple

        Good luck staying warm in the winter with wind power

        • Bob_Wallace

          Do you not understand how the electrical grid works?

          • Ame

            Well it will not work with wind and solar power as there is no energy storage battery.

          • Bob_Wallace

            That’s sort of correct.

            One could run a grid on wind and solar and fill in the gaps with pump-up hydro or CAES storage, or hydro, or a dispatchable generation source such as NG turbines.

          • I agree, those need very good planning, money and a lot of time. My opinion is that transition to solar and wind should be done very very slowly to make sustainable and profitable investment. Otherwise somebody should pay that circus.

          • Tina Casey

            Thank you all for a lively thread. As Milhail says, if you think of this as a process of transition rather than a case of one fuel versus another, you can see how energy storage and a stronger, more flexible transmission infrastructure must develop apace with the introduction of more intermittent energy into the grid. Personally I think this transition can progress quite speedily, as demonstrated in parts of the U.S. and elsewhere.

          • Tony Deans 2013

            Not without energy storage and law enforcement on energy amount used can this be achieved, otherwise where back where we started, producing more CO2 base emissions. There has to be law enforcement imposed upon energy used, to conserve energy, and not use more than previously, without any regard for the environment. Wind and solar power should not give one, the-right-off-way, to consume more energy.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Very highly unlikely that we would send armed officers into your house to turn off your lights if you had too many on.

            Usage will be controlled by rate schedules.

            Use a lot – pay a lot.

            That extra payment will be used for more solar panels, wind turbines, other renewable generation and storage.

            We’re moving to a future where we will all be able to use as much power as we want (as long as we are willing to pay for it). And all that electricity usage will not damage the planet.

          • Tony Deans 2013

            You got to be mad to say that you can use as much energy as you like you will be polluting the planet with more CO2 emission. Law enforcement through legislation will impose penalties on people with solar arrays the used more energy than before, the idea is to conserve energy, not to use more energy like you think. Have you not read that the planet is running out of energy or do you think it’s a free for all for everyone, I may as will start polluting the planet myself if I think in that way, uses much CO2 as I like.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I think you got lost somewhere along the way, Tony.

            No one is talking about anyone using as much fossil fuel produced electricity as they want. We’re talking about renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, tidal, biomass/gas.

            The planet is in no way running out of energy. We won’t have an energy problem for a few billion years.

            And at least a billion years before that we will have already been cooked out of existence by our self-destructing sun.

          • Tony Deans 2013

            I’m talking about personal responsibility for global warming everyone has to contribute, not someone take all for themselves. Like grid connected solar power people, then point the finger at those who don’t or can’t afford to do the same thing. Personally I have reduced my CO2 emissions the point where I be no longer be depended upon the grid and having the poles and wires removed from my property so I can certify myself as a true CO2 reduction person, not to be called a liar.

          • Bob_Wallace

            How are you obtaining your electricity during prolonged periods of low sunshine?

          • Bob_Wallace

            If we look at the places where wind and solar have been installed at the highest rates, places like Germany and Texas, things are going very well.

            The grid has experienced no problems. Integration costs have been extremely low. The wholesale cost of electricity has dropped.

          • Steeple

            And one could stand on their head for a long time if they wanted to as well; doesn’t make it an intelligent decision. Wind is already uneconomic vs coal and nat gas before the intermittency issue comes into play. They you need to add all of these other assets and costs to turn wind into ratable power. If someone wants to explain to the people of Wisconsin how much their electricity rates need to increase to accommodate these schemes and they approve, then I wish them luck.

          • Jean

            Your right no one will paid more of an idea that not proven .

          • Bob_Wallace

            No, new wind generation is about the same cost as new natural gas generation. Furthermore that wind cost is locked in for 20 to 40 years while the cost of natural gas is expected to increase. And that’s before we add carbon costs.

            Coal is our most expensive way to generate electricity. While we pay small money at the meter, we pay large money via tax dollar and health insurance premiums.

            New coal generation would be very much more expensive than wind, even before we add in the health costs.

            You make a common mistake of assuming the variability of wind makes it more expensive to the grid. It doesn’t. The cost of integrating wind into the overall mix is $0.0005/kWh. Almost zero.

          • Tim-tim

            No i don’t agree with that.

            Large-scale investment in wind and solar is as yet to be proven itself it hasn’t got supply storage capability other than those independent off grid systems that are remotely set up around the world.

            If you put this into context this is a total failure is does not delivering energy on demand on a 24 hour basis when compared to a remote setup system which does supply 24-hour base load energy to the individual remote off grid set up solar or wind system.

            Grid connected solar power system has turned the system upside down the majority of houses are not conserving power but using more energy than previously after subsidies were issued for the solar grid system.

            We can’s compare those remote set up systems which are manage their own energy use and compare it with those which are dependent upon the grid connected solar power which are heavily subsidised. Making the comparison that those on grid connected solar systems and not conserving power, are using more energy than before, at the expense of increasing amounts of CO2 emission. While those which have the remote off grid set up system conserve energy, and are CO2 emission neutral.

            So why are those people on grid connected solar system using more energy then before? It’s because no law enforcement has been imposed on them to conserve energy, and I think this is something that we have to look at more closely, should they be punished for using power after hours, should they be heavily punished for exceeding energy consumption, in my opinion yes, because we cannot allow people to continue to use solar power as an excuse to use more energy, use more energy at night- day time period then they previously used while increasing there CO2 emission base loading it’s totally wrong .

          • Bob_Wallace

            We’ve been surprised at how much wind and solar grids can accept with no disruption and without adding additional storage. We used to think it would be under 20%, then studies moved the number to 40%. Now we’re seeing real world grids getting as much as 70% of their supply from renewables at time.

            (That’s not counting several countries that have 90% – 100% renewable grids due to large amounts of hydro.)

            Please link to some data on your claim about higher electricity usage resulting from grid-connected solar.

            I don’t find that credible and need to see some objective proof.

          • Kenwall Saxby

            I like very much the point that was made here, law enforcement on energy consumption, it should be compulsory on all grid connected solar power homes to conserve energy, there nothing wrong with that, it a good thing to conserve energy.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Unnecessary and counterproductive.

            People are conserving without even realizing it. Our appliances and gadgets are getting more and more efficient. Replace your 15-20 year old refrigerator and you’ll get one the same size that uses 2x to 4x less electricity. Replace your burned out incandescent light bulb and your options at the store will use 4x less electricity.

            Then, for those few people who never close their refrigerator doors and have 12 big screen TVs going in every room – just charge a lot more for higher electricity use. Tiered rates.

          • Skip

            So you well force them off the grid? I don’t think that a good answer to conserving energy.

          • Bob_Wallace

            No, Skip.

            High users need to pay higher rates.

            That extra revenue can be used to install more renewable capacity.

          • Skip

            I don’t understand your answer, the idea of investing in renewable energy is to stop C02 emission, conserve energy, and use less not use more. Higher energy charges will only lead to people living without power and there will be no point in investing in renewable if there is no one to purchase it. High end users like those with grid connected solar power have the means to reduce energy reliance on fossil fuel though that ought to be a tax placed upon them for using more energy than before.

          • Bob_Wallace

            OK, I’ll go slow.

            We are installing renewables and cutting back on fossil fuels.

            Renewables have extremely small lifetime carbon footprints.

            We can install as much renewable generation as we want without creating CO2 problems.

            If some people what to use a lot of electricity the most logical solution is to let them. Charge them extra for the extra they consume.

            Use that extra revenue to install more renewables.

            There is no need to increase rates for “normal” consumers. In fact, renewables should give us cheaper electricity later on.

          • I agree, because as not stable energy sources, solar and wind, need “constant energy backup” in terms of production and consumption, since we do not have storage technologies as batteries for such huge amount of energy. So, to make possible the solar or wind energy to be “injected in the grid” without disturbing quality of current, we need strong backup that neutralize the instabilities of production rate(night, clouds or no wind times)

          • jfreed27

            The intermittent nature of solar and wind has been solved, e.g. in the case of Colo. renewables. It is always blowing somewhere, so programs simply need to select those (the ones that are somewhere) turbines. THis is not an insurmountable problem and no reason to halt development.

  • rkt9

    Yeah, and Warren Buffet is chuckling too, with his monopoly rail line, Burlington Northern that transports the coal.

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