Manufacturing resources could be key to creating new clean energy jobs

The state’s manufacturing resources could be key to creating new clean energy jobs, according to Wisconsin Environmental Initiative Director John Imes.

Speaking yesterday at a Wisconsin Technology Council event in Madison, Imes said Wisconsin has fallen “a little behind” on developing clean energy industries.

“This is a competitive issue,” he said. “We were always a low-cost island in terms of our energy costs; we’re kind of a high-cost island now.”

He chalked up that difference to other Midwest states pursuing renewable energy sources more aggressively.

Still, even in Wisconsin, optimism surrounding solar in particular is at an all-time high according to Scott Coenen, executive director of the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum.

As head of a lobbying group that largely appeals to Republicans, Coenen says he often speaks to groups that are downright hostile to renewable energy. In those discussions, he highlights the “incredible cost decline” for solar and wind energy seen in the past decade.

“The market moving in this direction is really tremendous,” Coenen said yesterday. “The plummit of the solar industry’s cost is almost unprecedented.”

Over the next four years, Coenen says around 1,700 megawatts of solar generation projects are projected to come online in Wisconsin. If all of those projects are built, he says the state would move from getting about 1 percent of its energy from solar, to getting 20 percent from solar.

“That has never happened like that in the history of our state, no matter how much government has pushed mandates or tax credits,” Coenen said. “It’s happening specifically, because the market has gotten behind these technologies.”

All of those planned projects are expected to create many more clean energy jobs in Wisconsin in the coming years. And Imes (pictured here) says the state’s strong manufacturing base presents other opportunities.

“I’m from Milwaukee originally; we were the tool and die capital of the world for 100 years,” Imes said. “There’s 8,000 parts to a wind turbine — those parts should be produced in Wisconsin.”

And Imes said the fiberglass molding capabilities of the boat-building sector in the northeast part of the state could be “retooled” to also create wind turbine blades.

“We’ve got access to markets, we’ve got deep water ports,” Imes said. “So those jobs could be in Wisconsin.”

According to Imes, Wisconsin and Iowa had the same amount of wind energy 15 years ago, with about 2 percent of each state’s energy mix. Since then, Iowa set a goal of creating 1,000 megawatts of new wind generation within 10 years and then “blew through that,” according to Imes.

Now, Imes says Iowa has about 5,000 megawatts of wind energy and 35 percent of all electricity produced in the state comes from wind. By comparison, Wisconsin is still at about 3 percent for wind.

Iowa employs many more people than Wisconsin does in its growing wind industry, and Imes also said Iowa’s overall electricity rates are about 30 percent lower than Wisconsin’s.

Iowa has a significant advantage for wind power. It’s the leading wind energy-producing state in the country, with generation clustered where the wind is strongest.

But even in Wisconsin, companies are shifting to renewable sources “organically,” according to Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still.

“They don’t need to be told at the outset that they have to make these changes. They’re doing it anyway because it makes sense,” Still said.

Pam Christensen is economic development director for Madison Gas and Electric, which has recently retired several coal plants as part of a broad decarbonization push.

“We’ve said all along if we can go further faster, we will,” she said at yesterday’s event. “Solar and wind — huge examples in those costs coming down.”

But Christensen said there’s still resistance to electric vehicles in the state, as well as to solar and wind for a number of reasons.

Some Wisconsinites in rural areas have called wind turbines an eyesore, arguing the large white structures disrupt the landscape. And others have raised concerns about how to generate solar energy in rural areas without overshadowing valuable cropland.

See an earlier story on Wisconsin’s clean energy industries: