WisBusiness: Nuclear should be part of state energy solution, PSC chair says

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

MADISON — Eric Callisto, chairman of the state Public Service Commission, predicts the Legislature will soon open the door to building new nuclear power plants in Wisconsin.

Speaking Monday at an energy conference organized by WisPolitics.com-WisBusiness.com, Callisto said the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate will enact the Governor’s Global Warming Task Force recommendations. And that includes modifying the language on the long-time moratorium on building nuke plants.

“It will be part of the package to reduce our carbon emissions,” said Callisto, who added that certain conditions would have to be met before the nuclear option could be considered.

Tia Nelson, who co-chaired the task force and participated in one of the conference panels, noted the task force didn’t recommend lifting the moratorium.

“It will happen only if stringent conditions are met,” she said. “I don’t believe nuclear plants are a near-term option. We should be pursuing the low-hanging fruit at this point, and that is conservation and energy efficiency. Right now, nuclear is a distraction.”

But Callisto said he is “optimistic (lawmakers) will take it up and move this issue forward. … Nuclear needs to be part of the solution.”

Three nuclear plants currently operate in the state — in Kewaunee, Point Beach, and on the UW-Madison campus.

Former Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem, a longtime champion of exploring the nuke option, said he was pleased with Callisto’s comments.

“This is the first ray of sunlight in dealing with our need for power without adding to our greenhouse gas emissions,” Huebsch said. “There is nowhere else to go.

“Still, I’m concerned the moratorium will be lifted too late and that we’ll be 15 to 20 years behind,” said.

The task force report says new nuclear could be considered only if: recommended policies for conservation, efficiency and renewable energy are enacted; the PSC finds that a new nuclear power plant is “safe, economic and in the public interest;” the electricity is either generated by or sold to a Wisconsin utility; and the power is sold to electricity customers in the state.

Huebsch said he didn’t believe the hurdles to dropping the moratorium are too tall.

“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said. “Nuclear power is already providing a lot of the energy in some countries in Europe.”

Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, said he initially thought that task force recommendations would make it harder to build a new nuclear plant in the state.

But Higley said he’s concerned because the final report dropped language from the moratorium statute saying there “has to be a federally licensed facility that will be available” before the prohibition is lifted.

“In exchange, the PSC has to approve a plan to handle nuclear waste and it must be safe, economic, reasonable, stringent and in the public interest,” he said.

“Focus on Midwest Energy II” was held today at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison and was attended by more than 150 people. Event partners included the government of Canada and the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative. Sponsors included ATC, Xcel Energy, Alliant Energy, Dominion, Virchow Krause & Co., and the Wisconsin Petroleum Council.

In other news from the conference:

— U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, told the gathering that while the nation’s economy is in dire straits and shedding jobs rapidly, she’s optimistic the new federal stimulus program signed recently by President Obama will put people back to work and invest billions in “clean, efficient American energy.”

She also said the legislation would increase renewable energy production and renovate public buildings to make them more energy efficient.

“It will also provide $20 billion in tax incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency over the next 10 years, including a three-year extension of the production tax credit for electricity derived from wind through 2012 and for electricity derived from biomass, geothermal, hydropower, landfill gas, and waste-to-energy through 2013.”

Other energy-related aspects of the bill, she predicted, will “jump-start the transition to a bigger, better, smarter grid” that will include more than 3,000 miles of new or modernized transmission lines. Research funds for advanced vehicle batteries will be increased.

And, in a move that could help Madison-based start-ups, she said the legislation “will boost investment in leading edge biofuels, making biofuel projects eligible for loan guarantees.”

Baldwin, member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, also said Congress will be working on “cap and trade” legislation this year and that action against climate change must be taken now despite short-term higher costs.

Read Baldwin’s prepared remarks

— David Owens, an official with Edison Electric Institute, said utilities are being hit hard by the restricted capital markets and have cut building plans by 10 percent over the next two years. But he predicted they’ll spend between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion over the next two decades to expand the nation’s power infrastructure and other projects.

He predicted the federal government might take over some regulatory powers now held by the states to speed up the building of transmission lines to get wind energy from the Plains to urban areas.

Owens praised Obama’s “vision of change” for the country, including plans to increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and build a smart grid.

“This is the biggest challenge I’ve seen in my career,” he said. “The stimulus package is a great vehicle for advancing technologies.”

But the green mandates will also raise the cost of energy, he said.

“And we have to be realistic and understand that renewable energy can’t meet all of our power needs,” he said.

— Gary Mar, who represents the Canadian province of Alberta in Washington D.C., told the audience that 50 percent of the natural gas and 13 percent of the oil imported by the United States comes from his region.

While he said there are no major environmental concerns over natural gas it pumps, he said some groups have targeted the Alberta oil sands, which hold more reserves than Saudi Arabia.

The rub, environmentalists say, is that strip mining used to recover the oil damages the environment and that processing the heavy crude releases large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Mar, however, said his government is reclaiming damaged lands and is investing heavily to reduce the amount of CO2 released.

And if importation of oil from Alberta to the United States is stopped, he suggested his province would build a pipeline to the West Coast of Canada and ship the oil to India or China. That then might mean the U.S. would have to import oil from unstable Nigeria or the unfriendly South American country of Venezuela.

— Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center and an adviser to Obama, highlighted the billions in the president’s stimulus that is targeted for high-speed rail and predicted a line could be built from Chicago to Minneapolis through Milwaukee and Madison. It could eventually include Detroit and St. Louis.

“These are exciting times, in part because this administration cares about the Midwest,” he said, citing Obama’s strong Chicago ties. “So hang on, it will be a big ride.”

“We have an unbelievable opportunity,” he said. “This administration recognizes that clean transportation and energy are economic drivers. This is good for the environment and good for jobs. It also does away with the false rule of having either jobs or a clean environment. We can have both.

“Our region can be a global leader in this effort,” said. “And we must act now, or the consequences could be catastrophic.”