Wisconsin must plan for carbon-restricted future, industry experts say

Wisconsin must plan for a carbon-constrained future by diversifying its energy portfolio to include more renewable energy, industry experts say.

But according to Barbara Nick, (pictured here) CEO of Dairyland Power Cooperative, expanding the state’s solar energy production is more than just a response to climate change.

“I come from a tradition that it’s good business sense to diversify your portfolio,” Nick said at RENEW Wisconsin’s sixth annual Renewable Energy Policy Summit in Madison. “Dairyland has a strategy that we will intentionally, strategically, but in a very measured way, diversify our energy portfolio.”

She and others made a point to emphasize the importance of sustainability when planning for the future of the state’s energy needs.

“Care for the environment is part of our DNA. We know we have impacts on the environment, and we work to mitigate that, and to make where we live better,” Nick said. “What we do needs to be built to last.”

The 75-year-old cooperative has already made strides toward a future of more diverse energy sources through its new renewable investments, such as the Quilt Block Wind Project.

This wind energy project, located near Platteville, has the potential to power more than 25,000 homes, while 15 solar projects will power over 2,500 homes.

Investments like these fit into Dairyland Power’s “Preferred Plan,” which Nick calls “our strategic imperative to diversify our energy resources.”

The initiative arose from Nick’s understanding that relying entirely on coal is not a sustainable plan. This understanding was a common thread for other speakers, who spoke to the benefits of moving to renewable energy sources.

Gregg Herman, general engineer for the Department of Defense, said the cost for renewable energy sources is trending downward, which is reflected in the federal budget.

“To see the tides turning, the economic benefits will be so apparent to people,” said Stanley Minnick, energy services manager for Organic Valley, the largest cooperative of farmers in the country. “It makes good business sense.”

These trends, combined with pursuing options for distributed energy storage, will create the perfect storm for renewable energy, Nick said.

“I do think that marrying solar with community storage is really where we all know the world will eventually get to,” Nick said.

Nick pointed to already-running consumer-owned solar systems as evidence of future growth potential in distributed resources.

“We have 1,000 consumer-owned distributed generation units on our system, 900 of which are solar,” Nick said. “I think that’s impressive, and when I look at the data, the trajectory that I see, to me, is more interesting than the raw number. You can just see it going up, almost with an exponential curve.”

In 2016, Dairyland Power had the largest roll-out of solar production in the history of the state.

Coal has dominated Wisconsin’s electricity production, however, with 55.9 percent coming from coal in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Seventy percent of Dairyland Power’s energy portfolio came from coal in 2016, according to Nick. Natural gas accounts for seven percent, while solar energy accounts for less than one percent, but is improving significantly.

“Through these 21 megawatts that we have announced, we double the solar generation in the state of Wisconsin,” Nick said.

While solar is growing in Wisconsin, it is also expanding nationally, according to Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, an advocacy group founded in 2002.

“Now we’re seeing on a regular basis in sunnier parts of the country long-term fixed contracts below 4 cents per kilowatt/hour,” Browning said. “You can’t build a new natural gas, or coal, or nuclear plant for those types of cost.”

Browning also said 2016 had 88 percent growth over 2015 for solar energy, a level not often seen in other industries. He added that the majority of new energy generation in the country now comes exclusively from solar.

“If you think about it, this is really a tool for economic development,” Browning said.

Nick pointed out that the inexorable shift toward renewables has been a long time coming.

“It is finally solar energy’s day in the sun,” she said. “The promise I saw as a young person–40 years ago–is coming to fruition.”

–By Alex Moe