19 Aug Four steps toward securing more reliable electric power for Wisconsin
MADISON – The only thing standing between Wisconsin and a blackout as widespread as last week’s Northeast power outage is our still-sluggish economy. If more people were working and businesses were operating near peak capacity, as they were in the late 1990s, Wisconsin’s overtaxed transmission grid could shut down in a New York (or Cleveland) minute.
A permanently sputtering economy is not the answer to Wisconsin’s looming shortage of reliable electrical power. The long-term solution can be found in a mix of technology and policy options readily available to the state:
1. Build the Arrowhead-Weston transmission line, which would connect Wisconsin to hydroelectric power from Canada via Minnesota.
Wisconsin is virtually an energy island, with only four transmission lines linking the state to the regional and national energy grid. Illinois has 25 high-voltage lines, by way of comparison, and Minnesota has 18. Parts of Wisconsin’s existing lines are among the most congested in the nation, which means voltage logjams could shut down power to much of the state – even if there’s adequate generation capacity. It’s past time to invest in Wisconsin’s core power grid.
2. Push for market incentives, greater conservation and improved efficiency.
The Wisconsin Environmental Initiative published a report last spring that calls for a market-based balance between the need for more generation and greater conservation, all with an eye toward improving the environment.
“Our aging energy infrastructure needs to be upgraded and enhanced in order to provide energy reliably, reduce the overall environmental footprint of the energy system, and take advantage of gains to be made through improved energy efficiency,” the WEI report concluded. “An improved energy infrastructure is necessary for attracting businesses that will keep our economy strong and continue to provide quality jobs.”
Education, research, supply chain management, real-time pricing, “Green Building” tax credits and streamlined building approval processes and other efforts to transform the market are all part of the plan. For more information, go to www.we-ei.org.
3. Overcome our tendency to oppose everything that may somehow encroach on our backyard, or which triggers reactions no longer grounded in fact.
When Madison Gas and Electric Co. proposed building a highly efficient and clean “co-generation” plant in Madison, meaning it’s a plant that would produce electricity as well as heat and chilled water when needed, it ran into a buzz saw of local opposition. The plant now seems on its way to being built, but the process raised a haunting question: If a plant this modern couldn’t be built on a site already being used to generate electricity, where could it be built?
The debate over We Energies “Power the Future” proposal, which would serve southeast Wisconsin first, is not purely a case of “not in my backyard.” Opponents question whether coal-fired plants, even with the latest technology, are clean enough. It’s a question worth asking, but the answer is not more natural-gas fired plants, which gobble up a price-sensitive resource. If Wisconsin wants to rely less on dirty coal, it should consider relying more on emissions-free nuclear power. But state law won’t allow utilities to consider building safe and reliable nuclear plants.
4. Use technology to develop new sources of electric power, and to make old sources more efficient.
At a recent conference sponsored by Wisconsin’s Alliant Energy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, utility experts and environmentalists agreed on the need to leverage energy technology. The U.S. utility industry has spent far too little on energy research and development. Many industries spend 10 percent or more of their net sales on research and development; the energy industry spends about three-tenths of 1 percent.
One national utility expert told the Alliant-NRDC conference: “The dog food industry no doubt runs well head of us (in R&D investments).”
Energy technology available today can build a new generation of nuclear power plants, which have no greenhouse emissions. Technology can speed the rise of fuel cells and the “hydrogen economy.” Cogeneration plants, improved wind turbines, geothermal power for heating and cooling, solar photovoltaic and biomass are among other promising technologies.
Also part of the mix is distributed generation. Distributed electric power refers to small electric generating units close to the “load centers,” such as homes, businesses or factories, and it can take pressure off the larger transmission grid.
Wisconsin has some of the nation’s best-managed utilities, but its electric infrastructure is creaky. Either the state accepts reasonable proposals to add electrical generation and transmission capacity, or it could be next on the blackout list. The latter is unacceptable – unless Wisconsin prefers a low-voltage economy.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.