Four Ways to Slash Carbon Emissions
The EPA requirement that Wisconsin cut carbon emissions could be easily met, through these four approaches.
Wisconsin has long been heavily reliant on coal. It ranks ahead of all but 13 states in the amount of power generated from coal, which fueled 51 percent of electricity in Wisconsin. That has major health consequences for its citizens, because no power source is more harmful. Pollution from Wisconsin coal plants is estimated to contribute to 268 deaths, 201 hospital admissions and 456 heart attacks each year, not to mention significantly increasing the state’s health care costs.
But that situation could soon improve, due to new rules by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which will require states to reduce carbon emissions. Critics, however, charge it could have a “devastating” impact on Wisconsin’s economy, as Scott Manley, vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), has declared. In short, according to these critics, we must choose between our health and our jobs.
But using the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s own figures on the impact of the EPA rules, their cost is equal to just one-fifth of one-percent of the total American economy, as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has noted. Writing for Urban Milwaukee, Bruce Thompson has looked at the impact claimed by the WMC and finds it is equal to two months of job growth for the five state, Midwest region. And these are the worst-case scenarios.
But even that small impact on jobs could probably be avoided, if Wisconsin simply took some proactive policies to reduce its reliance on coal and promote in-state solutions. There are four ways to do this:
Encourage Energy Conservation: it’s the low-hanging fruit that can easily reduce carbon emissions by reducing energy use. There are millions of homeowners, businesses and non-profits in the state that could save energy by installing insulation, fluorescent of LED lights, more efficient heating systems and appliances. And the entire cost of this is recouped through future energy savings. The state’s Focus on Energy program, created in 2001, pushes public utilities to provide incentives and assistance to homeowners and businesses to adopt conservation measures, but the companies like We Energies have always been less than bullish about the program and the new Public Service Commission (PSC) appointed by Gov. Scott Walker hasn’t been excited about conservation.
But the benefits for the state are obvious: An independent analysis in 2012 found that that for every $1 invested in the program (for both conservation and alternative energy installations), homeowners and businesses save $2.89 in energy costs, up from $2.46 in savings that a 2011 audit by nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau reported.
Wisconsin has already made some progress on this front: in 2013, the PSC recently announced, utilities generated more than 10 percent of the state’s power from renewable sources in 2013, hitting the level proscribed earlier by the Democratic-controlled legislature some two years before the 2015 deadline it set. The PSC report shows renewables provided 10.17 percent of power generated last year, up from 3.8 percent in 2006.
But most of the increase came before Walker and the Republicans came to power and progress has slowed down considerably. The Focus on Energy program also provides cash incentives to businesses and homeowners to adopt alternative energies like solar and wind technology. Democrats had passed legislation setting the annual funding for this at $160 million, with a steady increase to $256 million by 2014, but Walker and the Republicans slashed the annual funding to $100 million.
Given how quickly Wisconsin met the 10 percent challenge, you’d think state leaders would want to increase the goal. Neighboring states like Minnesota and Illinois have increased their targeted goal to 25 percent, but here again Walker and the Republicans have dragged their feet.
As I’ve previously written, Walker’s policies have sent a message that Wisconsin is not “open for business” when it comes to wind power. As a result, the state’s progress in installing wind power came to a screeching halt in 2012. Data from Wind on the Wires shows that in 2012, Illinois added 823 megawatts of wind power, Iowa added 814, Michigan 611, Minnesota 267 and Indiana 203. Wisconsin’s total? Zero.
As for solar power, Rex Gillespie, a former president of the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association, told Milwaukee Magazine in February 2012 that work for solar contractors began to decline after the PSC slashed funding for solar power.
Yes, alternative energy depends on subsidies. But so does the fossil fuel industry. Meanwhile, the subsidies for alternative energy encourage the creation and expansion of in-state industries, while buying subsidized fossil fuel helps states like Wyoming and Texas.
Create a Cap and Trade Program: Though it’s now vilified by many conservatives, cap and trade is a free market oriented solution that was once championed by Republicans. Under this approach, government imposes a cap on emissions, and each company starts the year with a certain number of tons allowed—a so-called right to pollute. The company decides how to use its allowance; it might restrict output, or switch to a cleaner fuel, etc.. If it doesn’t use up its allowance, it might then sell what it no longer needs.
A cap and trade plan was endorsed by President George H.W. Bush and approved in 1990 as an amendment to the Clean Air Act. The program actually began in 1995. Since then, the American industrial sector has slashed sulfur dioxide pollution 64 percent. The EPA estimates the program has saved $120 billion in public health costs, which is about 40 times what it cost to implement the program, while saving 20,000 to 50,000 lives per year.
Smithsonian Magazine called the program “one of the most spectacular success stories in the history of the green movement.”
Could such a plan work for carbon emissions? It already does, In 2009, nine states in the Northeast — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — created a regional plan to reduce carbon emissions through a cap and trade plan. The result: these states reduced emissions by 18 percent, 4.5 times more than the other 41 states in this period of time. But did it hurt economic growth? Nope. During this same period, economic growth in the nine states rose by 9.2 percent, compared to 8.8 percent in the other 41 states.
These nine states now emit 91 million tons of carbon emissions annually. Wisconsin by itself emits 96 million tons.
To maximize the impact of cap and trade in Wisconsin, it might be better to adopt a similar, regional plan that included a state like Iowa, which is one of the national leaders in creating wind power.
Switch to Natural Gas: This is the only solution that seems acceptable to the state’s Republican leaders, but given how much companies like We Energies have invested in coal-fired plans, they are not excited about the high costs involved in convert to natural gas plants. But that would not be an impediment to solutions like conservation or cap and trade, and even alternative energies, because they are smaller-scaled, lower cost projects, could have appeal for utilities — not to mention businesses and homeowners across the state.
Of course, it takes leadership to make this happen, and Walker seems more concerned about protecting fossil fuel companies located outside this state. He signed the “No Climate Tax Pledge” promising to “oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.” The pledge was devised by a group co-founded and backed by the billionaire Koch brothers whose companies, according to the EPA, emit over 24 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.
As for Milwaukee-based company We Energies, the state’s largest utility, it remains a sluggard in embracing alternative energy: it generated a ways more than 7 percent of its electricity from renewable power last year, while other Wisconsin utilities generated much more: Northern States Power, for example, gets 18 percent of its electricity from renewables, WPPI Energy gets 16 percent and and Dairyland Power 14 percent.