Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

State Trails Most In Renewable Energy

Just 10 mostly southern states are doing less. Wisconsin also has more expensive electricity.

By - Sep 20th, 2021 03:39 pm
Solar panels

Solar panels. CC0 Creative Commons. Photo from pixabay.

While Wisconsin has made some progress in recent years, with utilities turning more to solar and wind power, this state is still far behind the nation — and most states — in adopting these renewable energy sources. 

A new analysis by the Texas-based website Choose Energy, based on data from June of this year, shows that Wisconsin ranks very low in the percent of energy it gets from wind power, with just 1.6% compared to 7% for the nation. And Wisconsin ranks equally bad in the percent of its energy coming from solar power, at just 1%, versus 4.5% for the nation.

Wisconsin trails 28 states in the percent of energy coming from wind power and behind 25 states in solar power. 

But the state looks even worse when you look at wind and solar power combined, which accounts for 2.6% of energy in Wisconsin. Just 10 states have a lower percent of their energy coming from solar and wind power. Seven are southern states with 1% or less of their energy coming from solar and wind power. The new slogan for Wisconsin’s energy profile might be “Better than Mississippi and Alabama.” 

Wisconsin is far behind its neighboring midwestern states in the percent of energy coming from solar and wind, with Iowa leading at 41.8%, followed by Minnesota (21.8%), Illinois (8.2%) and Michigan (6.4%). These four states are getting two-and-a-half to 16 times more of their energy from solar and wind than Wisconsin.

And Wisconsin is more dependent on coal than all but 10 states, with more than 41% of its electric power generated by burning coal.

Why is Wisconsin so far behind? A key factor was eight years of leadership by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who opposed renewables and under whom the state was spending more than $12 billion annually to import coal and gas. And while Democratic Gov. Tony Evers supports renewables, he faces a Republican Legislature that remains indifferent to hostile in its attitude toward solar and wind power. 

A 2019 report by the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center did a comparison of Wisconsin and Minnesota that found this state ranked far behind in its policies toward renewable energy. “Minnesota has a suite of clean energy policies that help drive the development of wind and solar power,” the report found, “while Wisconsin has a few modest and outdated policies.”

Finally the leadership of the state’s utilities, led by We Energies in Milwaukee, has been slow to embrace renewables, due to prior investments in coal power plants. As Sierra Club member Susan Modder has written: “Through its subsidiaries, We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), WEC is deeply invested in two of the dirtiest and most uneconomic plants still operating in Wisconsin today — the South Oak Creek and Columbia coal-burning power plants.”

Is We Energies saving its customers money by doing this? Not really, the Sierra Club contends: According to a 2019 analysis by the group, We Energies customers were continuing to pay millions of dollars to keep uneconomical coal plants running. Between 2014 and 2018 the South Oak Creek plant alone cost customers $75 million per year more than if the utility had just bought energy from the open market.

When asked why We Energies hasn’t moved faster to close its coal plants, company spokesman Brendan Conway noted that the company had moved from getting 73% of its power from coal in 2005 to 36% in 2020, though that has mostly involved a switch to a less polluting fossil fuel, natural gas. As of 2020 just 6% of the company’s power comes from renewables, his figures show. The figures also show the company plans to hit 39% renewables by 2030 and to be 100% carbon neutral by 2050, which Conway called “some of the most aggressive near-term emission reduction goals in the utility industry.”

Earlier this year, the publication InsideClimateNews summarized the view of Jim Robo, CEO of NextEra Energy, one of the country’s largest electricity utilities on why some utilities have been slow to switch to renewables: “many of the remaining coal plants are able to keep operating because they are in states or regions with regulatory systems that force consumers to cover the costs. For utilities in those states, it makes more sense to continue operating a plant at a customer-guaranteed profit than to go through the risk of proposing and building something new.”

That might help explain why Wisconsin’s electricity rates are so much higher than the national average. Choose Energy’s most recent analysis found that Wisconsin’s average price for electricity was 14.69 per kilowatt hour, considerably higher than the national average of 13.85 per kilowatt hour. Wisconsin’s average rate was higher than in 37 other states.

Which suggests we are getting the worst of all possible worlds: paying more to get less renewables and more pollution. 

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2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: State Trails Most In Renewable Energy”

  1. blurondo says:

    As long as you keep exposing WE, I’ll keep renewing my Urban Milwaukee membership. One good turn deserves another.

  2. David Coles says:

    “Renewable” energy is not the gold standard; “clean” energy is. For example, a massive hydroelectric dam would qualify as renewable, even if it destroys a river ecosystem.

    In Wisconsin, the for-profit utilities (regional monopolies) have far too much influence and through regulatory capture have dominated the Public Service Commission, which is supposed to serve the public interest. The resulting regulatory system disincentivizes distributed solar (rooftop solar), because the last thing these greedy utilities want is the citizenry becoming their own little power plants. Never mind that human and planetary survival literally depends on this becoming ubiquitous.

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