Swenson: Utility chief says transmission key to making wind power viable for Wisconsin

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

The best wind energy is west of Wisconsin, and that’s part of the reason a better power transmission system is key to ramping up wind production, the head of Northern States Power Co. says.

“There is a saying in the wind industry that if you like wind, then you gotta love transmission,” says Michael Swenson, NSP president and CEO of the Eau Claire-based utility — a subsidiary of Xcel Energy.

Swenson said in a May interview he’s proud of his company’s environmental track record, noting that Xcel Energy is the largest wind-energy producer in the United States.

“We have been for the past four years,” he says. “We’ve got about 2,935 megawatts of wind energy, and we have plans to grow that to about 2,400 megawatts by 2020.”

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Swenson said most of the wind energy in the NSP system is produced from giant windmills in southwestern Minnesota and the Dakotas.

“We happen to be pretty fortunate in our service territory with Xcel Energy to be located in some of the best wind resources in the United States,” he says. “We also have wind in our Colorado system for the Public Service Co. of Colorado.”

He says his company may build towers in Wisconsin but hasn’t made any decisions.

“We’ve investigated some possibilities,” he says. “But the best wind resource happens to be in the Dakotas and western Minnesota. It’s significantly lower-value wind in Wisconsin, though some have been put up.

“We continue to look at opportunities here, and if we see one that looks economically viable, we’d be interested,” he says. “Right now, we’re waiting for the results from some studies.”

Swenson says his utility and other power companies in the Upper Midwest are involved in the CapEx 2020 effort. He calls it “an attempt to reinforce the transmission system to make it more robust for reliability and also give opportunities for moving some of that wind energy to markets.”

Swenson says the roadblocks to new transmission systems aren’t any different than they have ever been.

“People have concerns about large transmission lines going through their property,” he says. “That’s not a new thing, and it’s not associated with renewable energy. People want it in somebody else’s backyard and not their own.”

Swenson also discussed other renewable assets, including biomass

NSP has plans within two years to run the third boiler at the Bay Front Power Plant in Ashland — now coal-fired — with a biomass gasifier, which will greatly reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the plant.

“It’s an exciting project,” says Swenson. “This will complete the conversion and make Bay Front one of the largest biomass power plants in the country.”

Swenson says the utility hopes to get approval for the roughly $60 million project later this year from the state Public Service Commission. Construction could begin next year, with the start for operation slated for 2011.

Swenson, who has worked for utilities for nearly 30 years, says the boiler will be fired by wood scraps traditionally left on the forest floor after paper companies have harvested trees.

When converted, the project will displace 100,000 tons of coal and 4,000 tons of petroleum coke and remove 80,000 tons of carbon, according to David Donovan, the utility’s manager for regulatory policy.

In February, when the company filed its request with the PSC, it was hailed by environmental groups.

“This is a great sign of progress,” says Andy Olsen, a representative of Environmental Law and Policy Center. “We hope Xcel can carry this through to completion.

“We also hope they can work with the state and conservation groups to make sure this is a model project for sustainable use of wood,” he says.

Mark Redsten, executive director of Clean Wisconsin, also praised Xcel and said the project “will both lessen Wisconsin’s reliance on imported fossil fuels and propel us closer to the renewable energy goals of Gov. (Jim) Doyle’s Task Force on Global Warming.”

In Wisconsin, Swenson says NSP is the largest supplier of renewable energy – with most of that coming from the company’s 19 hydroelectric dams.

“They provide more than 250 megawatts of clean and renewable energy,” he says. “We’ve been doing that since the early 1900s.”

Currently, 14 percent of NSP’s total energy output is renewable.

“By 2020, we hope to grow that significantly by 2020 with 21 percent coming just from wind by then,” he says, predicting that his company will beat state and federal mandates for renewable energy.

He hopes NSP ratepayers will benefit and not be penalized because of “early action” by the company.

“That’s one of the concerns we have as a corporation as we move along and do the right thing for the environment,” he says.

Swenson says the cost of producing power from hydroelectric dams is relatively low because projects were built many years ago.

And he says wind-powered systems “are becoming much more viable as each year goes by, in part because of federal credits, and (they are also) less expensive than new coal-fired plants.”

Even though energy prices have declined during the recession, he says interest in renewable remains solid.

“I believe that (low energy costs) is a temporary situation,” he says. “As soon as we start to come out of these economic doldrums, we will see a renewed focus on renewable energy going forward.”

He says his company is also working with National Renewable Energy Lab, doing research on how wind can be used to generate hydrogen, “so that we can use the hydrogen to make electricity when the wind isn’t blowing.”

In addition, Xcel is doing battery research and is involved with a plug-in hybrid vehicle project with Ford.

On a more controversial subject, Swenson believes it won’t be too long before nuclear power plants are built in the United States again. But he said his company will take a go-slow approach.

“I think that nuclear has to be part of the mix going forward,” he says.

“As for our corporation, we are not going to be the first one to build a new nuclear plant and we may not be the second one.

“As this whole process solidifies and codifies in the United States about what our policies towards nuclear power will be, we think we’d like to be a part of that,” he says.

“But we have no immediate plans for any nuclear plants anywhere at this point,” he concludes.