We Energies Embraces Solar Power
State moving away from coal -- but still has a long ways to go.
For decades, We Energies has been a coal colossus. As recently as 2005, about 70 percent of its power came from burning coal and even today 51 percent of its power is coal generated, the company estimates. That meant more pollution for this metro area, which for many years fell hardest on minority residents, one study found.
That situation improved after the company’s Menomonee Valley plant switched to natural gas, but coal was still in heavy use and polluting the state. The company’s plant in Pleasant Prairie uses “an average of 13,000 tons of coal a day, shipped in train cars from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin,” to supply the electric needs of up to one million homes, as Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel has reported.
Because of the leadership of companies like We Energies, just nine states in America were more dependent on coal than Wisconsin, and those tend to be states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming and North Dakota — big producers of coal. Wisconsin was spending more than $12 billion annually to import coal and gas, importing pollution to this state and exporting potential jobs to coal and gas producers while failing to grow alternative energy jobs here.
So it was big news indeed when We Energies announced last week that it would shut down its coal-fired plant in Pleasant Prairie while essentially replacing the lost power with new solar farms. The company said it plans to own and develop 350 megawatts of solar power by 2020.
That will help to transform a state that has been “an island of renewable-energy stagnation amid a sea of growth,” as Gary Radloff, a policy analyst for the Wisconsin Energy Institute, told Bloomberg.com in 2015. Wisconsin has until recently ranked dead last among Midwestern states in wind power and second last in solar power.
“We’re still behind our neighbors,” says Huebner. “Everybody else has been moving very quickly.”
But he sees a lot of good things happening in Wisconsin in the last two years:
–Alliant Energy, based in Madison, got approval in 2016 to build 500 megawatts of wind farms in Iowa (a very windy state) to supply energy for its customers.
-In February 2016, Dairyland Power Cooperative, based in La Crosse, announced it would add 20 megawatts of solar across 15 sites, most of them in Wisconsin.
-In June 2016 Dairyland announced it would work with EDP Renewables to build the 98-megawatt Quilt Block Wind Farm in Lafayette County near Platteville. Construction of the wind farm, which will supply enough clean electricity to power more than 25,000 households, was completed last month
-In January, 2017, WPPI Energy, a power company based in Sun Prairie serving 51 locally owned electric utilities, announced plans to build a 100- megawatt solar energy center – then Wisconsin’s largest but now supplanted by We Energies – with a capacity to serve more than 23,000 people near the Point Beach nuclear power plant in Two Rivers.
-In February, Madison Gas and Electric announced a proposal to construct, own, and operate a 66-megawatt wind farm that would cost $107 million and consist of 33 turbines, about 200 miles west of Madison in Howard County, Iowa.
In August, WPPI Energy announced it would buy the power from a 132-megawatt wind farm in Illinois, thereby doubling the amount of wind energy in the company’s power supply portfolio.
-Alliant Energy now plans to build another 200 megawatts of wind energy in Wisconsin.
It’s worth noting that We Energies had built what are still the two biggest wind farms currently operating in Wisconsin: the 88-turbine, 145-megawatt Blue Sky Green Field Wind Energy Center in northeast Fond du Lac County in 2008, and the 90-turbine, 162-megawatt Glacier Hills Wind Park in Columbia County in central Wisconsin in 2011.
But the recent spate of renewable projects announced has made Walker an irrelevant bystander to market forces. “The economy is the big driver,” says Huebner. “The price of solar is down 80 percent in the last 10 years. Wind is down 66 percent in the last seven years.”
WPPI projects that 20 percent of all its power will come from wind by 2018. Madison Gas & Electric has pledged to supply 30 percent of its electric power with renewable resources by 2030. We Energies offers a less robust promise, to hit 33 percent of its power coming from non-emitting sources, including renewable energy and nuclear power, by 2030.
Still, that projection also includes its coal use declining to 33 percent of all power generated, a huge reduction from the days when 70 percent of power came from coal. Progress is happening, despite the lack of encouragement from state leaders.
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