WisBusiness: State to target renewable energy purchases

By Joanne M. Haas


MADISON — State government should flex its purchasing muscle to push Wisconsin utilities toward greater use of renewable energy, officials said Tuesday at an energy conference.

“What we’re going to do as a state, as a purchaser, is to make sure as we deal with the various utilities that we purchase from, that they’re going to have to meet the kinds of standards that we want,” Gov. Jim Doyle said, in an interview following a speech at the Second Annual Energy Conference.

What the Democratic governor is talking about is renewables. Doyle publicly embraced a recommendation from his still-working blue ribbon energy panel to require that the state by 2006 makes sure 10 percent of all the power it buys comes from renewables, such as wind-generated and biomass. That target jumps to 20 percent in 2010. “State government is a major consumer of electricity, and as such, has the buying power to influence electric markets,” he said.

But Doyle said nuclear power “is not part of the mix.”

The state’s ability to meet those targets rests outside the realm of state government. “It’s really up to the utilities to hit it,” Doyle said of the 2006 and 2010 renewable purchase goals, adding “all of them are doing various things to increase renewables used.”

But Doyle winced at the idea of looking outside of the state if government can’t find enough renewables to buy in Wisconsin. “To me, it’s important that we work with Wisconsin utilities.”

Tuesday’s daylong event, held at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, was sponsored by Customers First! Coalition and the Wisconsin Coalition of Energy Consumers and attended by representatives from utilities, consumer groups, government, business and more.

During his speech, the governor issued a similar challenge to utilities to make sure 10 percent of the power it provides to homes, businesses and other private customers is from renewable sources by the year 2015.

Doyle repeatedly said affordable, reliability power is “absolutely essential” to a healthy state economy, and the decisions to build more power plants and transmission lines to answer the state’s 2 percent to 3 percent annual growth in energy needs are difficult and must be made with great care.

When asked by reporters if nuclear was part of Wisconsin’s answer to future energy needs, Doyle said: “It doesn’t fit into the equation.” A nuclear power plant hasn’t been built in decades, in part because of Wisconsin law.

Lee Cullen, chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Energy Efficiency and Renewables created in September 2003, said the 25-member panel has been holding hearings around the state gathering testimonies and working in smaller subgroups.

In an interview, Cullen said he was glad Doyle embraced the task force’s renewable purchase recommendations announced during the governor’s speech. “The state should be able to do that and set an example for the rest of the utilities and customers,” Cullen said.

Cullen says the panel is working on recommendations in largely three areas: energy programs, such as funding levels and security; and renewable sources usage; and building codes, including residential, commercial and new construction. “There is a lot going on in that area,” he said.

Once the recommendations are complete, they will be bound into a report. Some of the recommendations will likely need legislative action, others executive action and still others may be handled by the market itself.

Cullen says big policy topics such as energy efficiency would need legislative action. The building codes could be a mix of commerce action, as well as legislative action. When it comes to building codes, Cullen says it involves proposals such as energy inspectors and training programs to support such professionals in Wisconsin. The unions have been involved, Cullen said, adding the builders also are a key constituency in this area.

But even the best planning may fall short. “It is hard because you have to make judgments that turn out true or not true,” Cullen said. ” The big thing about electricity is you can’t store it. You have to figure out what the demand will be — growth and load… Judgments about that are really difficult, like future fuel prices.”

Added Cullen: “You have to have hedges. …You know that not all your predictions are going to be right. These are big-ticket issues for Wisconsin, because it has no fuel — no coal and no natural gas.” Wisconsin also is an end-of-the-line state for pipelines, and it has poor transmission connections to the rest of the world.

Wisconsin is known for having the second most constrained transmission system in the nation’s power grid. With only four high-voltage lines linking Wisconsin to its neighbors, state officials are working in concert with representatives from all sides of the energy equation to determine how best to proceed with catching up. Meanwhile, the population has grown, along with an explosion of consumer and business computers and other devices, putting an even greater strain on the state’s power grid.

The blue ribbon panel will meet in late July to make final decisions after nearly a year of work. That meeting is expected to be held July 20 in the Governor’s Conference Room in the Capitol. A report is expected to be completed and released sometime in September.