Wisconsin’s renewable energy policy summit

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

With its dependence on energy imports to fuel its economy, Wisconsin has been a leading advocate for renewable energy. We participated in the recent Renew Policy Summit in Madison, Wis., to gain a perspective on their new renewable initiatives.

Wisconsin leaders in renewable energy have feared their existing policy framework supporting renewable energy would be dismantled. They believe the losses have been stopped for now and are focused on taking positive actions to re-energize state renewable energy efforts.

Wisconsin has no coal, oil or natural gas, and one of its two nuclear power plants is closing. Energy expenditures of $18 billion a year leave the state, providing limited benefits to local communities.

Efficiency and renewable energy sources are seen as a means to keep energy dollars in their communities. They provide jobs manufacturing components for the systems, installing and servicing them.

Some recent examples of local renewable successes were cited, including a PV installation on a building at the Dane County Airport, a new major recycling facility utilizing methane gas from a landfill, and three community wind generator installations totaling 18 megawatts.

Support from the state is essential to expand their renewable energy efforts. A panel of state representatives supportive of renewable energy efforts pointed out that citizen support for policy initiatives was essential for them to have any legislative success favorable to renewable energy interests.

They reminded the group that the political process involves compromises with other interests to win approval for their initiatives. They have more success seeking important incremental gains as opposed to an omnibus initiative seeking dramatic changes.

Summit participants self-selected into three policy interests groups — solar electricity, wind and bioenergy — discussed policy options in each area and selected actions to take after prioritizing the actions.

With falling solar electric costs and rising utility costs, the opportunity exists to increase the amount of electricity generated from the sun. However, the initial cost of such systems, along with limited customer understanding of them, are barriers to solar presence in the marketplace.

Utility-scale wind energy installations have met their renewable energy standard for 2015 and have no incentive to add more capacity. The problems for wind include the fact that flat or lower sales of electricity reduces utility demand for additional generation, organized opposition to wind farms exists, and there is a lack of meaningful incentives for small wind installations of less than 100 kilowatts.

Bioenergy was the third issue addressed. A biogas supply chain exists in Wisconsin, and the potential to expand the industry fourfold over the next decade is possible. Low natural gas prices have limited the market to replace propane consumption. Although there are economic reasons to switch from propane to biogas in rural areas, there is no coordinated statewide effort to assist with market expansion.

Each participant was asked to sign a pledge at the end of the sessions as to what actions they were willing to take in support of the policy recommendations. The fruits of their efforts will become visible through legislative actions during the year.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Jan. 23-29, 2013, issue

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