The cost of clean air

Posted on October 14, 2009. Filed under: Clean Air, Coal, Generation Plants, Wind |

From an article by Mike Ivey in The Capital Times:

For more than a decade, customers at Madison Gas & Electric have voted with their pocketbooks for cleaner energy.

Under the voluntary “Green Power Tomorrow” program, more than 12,000 MGE customers – nearly 10 percent of its total customer base – pay on average a premium of about $6 per month to get their electricity from such nonpolluting sources as wind.

“It’s been a very reasonable way to reduce our carbon footprint,” says Tom Yager, 37, a stay-at-home father of two who lives in Seminole Forest. “It’s also helped us track how much electricity we’re using and find ways to cut back.”

MGE’s program has been so successful, in fact, that the company was recently honored by the U.S. Department of Energy with its Utility Green Power Program of the Year Award.

But the bigger question facing all utility customers across Wisconsin is whether they are willing to pay more for their electricity – by some accounts 30 percent more – in the name of saving the planet. Proposed federal rules aimed at curbing such greenhouse gas emissions as carbon dioxide (CO2) would fall most heavily on such states as Wisconsin that rely on fossil fuels to generate most of their
electricity. . . .

And with the state economy already struggling with manufacturing job losses, [Scott Manley, who heads environmental programs for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying group,] is concerned that additional mandates or tougher limits on emissions will further hamstring business efforts. He estimates it could cost $15 billion to reach the 25 percent renewable goal within the next 15 years.

“The fact is, these things are not free, they are tremendously expensive,” he says.

WMC has even come out with a survey showing that while Wisconsin residents are concerned about global warming and clean energy, most aren’t ready to pay more to address it. The survey of likely voters found that 73 percent are opposed to any increased fees on utility bills to pay for energy conservation. Those polled were, by a 3-1 margin, also against paying as little as $25 a month to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

But clean energy advocates say this is exactly the time to be pushing energy alternatives.

They point to a competing survey from the Forest County Potawatomi showing widespread support for reductions in greenhouse gases like CO2. The poll found support for climate change legislation crossing party lines, with 53 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of independents and 87 percent of Democrats favoring action at the state level.

Michael Vickerman, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, thinks the state should set ambitious goals and send a signal it’s serious about wind, solar and other clean energy alternatives.

“Even if we reach 10 percent (renewables) by 2015 it doesn’t mean you just stop there,” he says.

To that end, Gov. Doyle last month signed legislation to allow uniform rules for the development of small wind farms. Vickerman calls it the most significant piece of clean energy legislation ever passed in Wisconsin, crediting WMC for helping to make it happen. “They really helped us line up Republican votes, otherwise I don’t think it would have passed,” says Vickerman.

The new law requires the PSC to issue standardized rules for the entire state. Local units of government would then apply these standards as they consider small wind farms of under 100 megawatts.

Vickerman is optimistic that wind power will continue to gain support in the state. He says a project to watch is the proposed Glacier Hills wind project in Columbia County from We Energies that would add 90 turbines producing up to 162 megawatts of electricity.

While Wisconsin doesn’t have the ideal landscape for wind power as does Minnesota, Vickerman says that’s no reason to stand pat.

“Our wind resources are robust enough,” he says. “If we were fully committed, we could accommodate another 1,000 megawatts.”


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