• WisBusiness

State has access to plenty of reliable power, PSC chief says

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

It’s been roughly 17 years since Wisconsin experienced brownouts – and a near blackout -- from a July heat wave that launched a building boom of new power plants and transmission lines.

So while the second day of 100-degree-plus days sent energy use soaring in much the state on Thursday, Wisconsin was not in danger of any power shortages, state Public Service Chairman Phil Montgomery said in an interview.

The state was close to breaking energy use records yesterday that were set in 2006, he said. Temperatures were expected to begin easing after today.

Montgomery said he is grateful to the energy officials who started the ball rolling in the 1990s to improve the state’s energy situation.

“I want to thank the people who back then had the foresight and fortitude to address the problems and realize that it took a massive undertaking to address our power reliability needs, especially when you are talking about commercial and industrial customers,” he said.

Though some older, less efficient and more polluting coal-fired plants have been shut down since then for environmental reasons, Montgomery said utilities have built 18 new power facilities in the ensuing years, adding 5,522 megawatts of electrical generation.

Two more plants are under construction that will add 1,200 megawatts, and facilities that will produce another 2,900 megawatts of electricity have been approved, he added. The biggest plant is We Energies Oak Creek plant, which puts out more than 1,200 megawatts.

“So all totaled, we probably have 10,000 more megawatts than when we started this process,” he said.

Montgomery said advances in energy transmission technology have also helped Wisconsin.

“So we are in an enviable position of not only have adequate supply to address the brownout issue, but we are helping keep a large part of the Midwest up and running,” he said.

That includes We Energies selling power into the Chicago market when it is not required here in Wisconsin, he said.

Montgomery was elected to the state Assembly in 1998 and served through the 2009-10 session, working on many energy and utility issues.

“So that’s one of the joys of having spent 12 years in the Legislature, sending things over to have the PSC to write the rules and then now getting to run the PSC,” he said, chuckling.

Montgomery said one of the “lesser-known features” of the state’s energy infrastructure is Wisconsin’s participation in the Midwest Independent System Operator, which coordinates power transmission from Michigan to Montana and Manitoba to Missouri.

Prior to the creation of MISO, power generated at a local plant probably supplied a community’s electricity, he said. Now, thanks to a complex computer system, the most economical and efficient power produced is dispatched from around the region to where it’s needed.

“That’s been a real game changer in this industry,” he said. “It’s all done using a computer model to ensure the most efficient plants and resources are used first.”

He said the PSC is now doing a study of its coal-fired plants, in part because of new environmental rules from the Obama administration to cut air pollution.

Some older plants may have to be retired, which he said could add some uncertainty to the state’s energy picture.

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