Wisconsin environmental groups are cheering new rules to cut air pollution, proposed Monday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while business groups say the measures will hurt consumers and industries.
The plan, aimed at reducing emissions from existing coal-fired power plants nationwide, would ask Wisconsin — and the U.S. as a whole — to slash carbon dioxide emissions by one-third by the year 2030.
That would “significantly increase the cost of electricity for Wisconsin consumers and kill thousands of jobs,” said Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying group.
“The rule ... is likely to inflict dramatic and irreversible harm to our economy if it is allowed to move forward,” said Scott Manley, WMC vice president of government relations. Manufacturing jobs, in particular, will suffer, he said.
Utility companies and government regulators said they need more time to review the lengthy documents.
“They look ambitious but they do have a lot of flexibility built in, so that’s a positive thing,” said Scott Reigstad, spokesman for Alliant Energy, Madison. Alliant operates and is part owner of the 1,024-megawatt Columbia power plant near Portage; all or part of three generators that produce 770 megawatts at the Edgewater power plant in Sheboygan; and the 200-megawatt Cassville power plant.
Reigstad said Alliant will have spent $1.4 billion through 2017 on technology to slash other pollutants — such as mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — at its coal-fired plants in Wisconsin and Iowa.
But carbon dioxide is not so easy to contain, he said. “There’s no off-the-shelf technology to just be able to put on the plant to capture carbon,” Reigstad said.
He said either the generators have to be run more efficiently, coal plants have to be shuttered, or power plants using other types of fuel must be added.
Alliant has taken all of those steps, he said, by building wind farms in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota; adding power plants fueled by natural gas; and planning the shutdown of the Cassville coal-fired plant at the end of 2015.
“We feel like we have a pretty good starting point,” Reigstad said.
Madison Gas & Electric also owns part of the Columbia power plant and 8 percent of Wisconsin Energy’s coal-fired power plant near Oak Creek. MGE’s 150-megawatt Blount Street power plant Downtown was converted from coal to natural gas in 2010.
The conversion to gas at Blount was part of MGE’s overall goal of reducing carbon emissions by 2015. It also includes a diversified and more efficient generation mix, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, MGE spokesman Steve Kraus said.
“From 2005 to 2015, the plan will achieve a projected 21 percent decrease in total carbon dioxide emissions,” Kraus said.
The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin is still “diving through” the lengthy EPA documents, spokesman Nathan Conrad said. But upon initial glance, the new rules would “potentially cause some rate increases” for consumers, he said.
In a letter to the EPA in December, commenting on development of the rules, the PSC pointed to the lack of equipment to decrease carbon dioxide fumes; state energy efficiency and renewable energy incentives; and efforts to increase the use of biomass energy.
More than half of the electricity used in Wisconsin comes from coal-fired generators, and several coal units already have been retired, the PSC said, in its letter. “This approach risks continued access to Wisconsin’s most reliable energy source and our ability to provide affordable energy to the citizens of Wisconsin,” the commission said.
The PSC also noted “significant legal issues” surrounding the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide from existing power plants.
According to the Energy Information Administration, Wisconsin gets 63 percent of its energy from coal.
Keith Reopelle, senior policy director with Clean Wisconsin, said the EPA plans are “practical, reasonable and will be very achievable” and will “drive a higher quality of life through job development, healthier living and more conservative management of our natural resources.”
A letter sent to the EPA and to President Barack Obama from more than 100 Wisconsin doctors and nurses last week said air pollution is to blame for health problems such as asthma and heart attacks for thousands of people, while nearly 400 religious leaders from the Midwest signed a letter saying climate change affects poverty and hunger.
Renewable energy boosters were enthusiastic about the EPA proposal. “We see this new rule as a key driver for additional renewable energy development in the Midwest,” said Wind on the Wires executive director Beth Soholt. Wind provides 2.4 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity needs, the American Wind Energy Association said.
The 645-page EPA plan is considered a centerpiece of Obama’s efforts to deal with climate change and to give the U.S. more leverage to prod other countries to act. Each state will submit a plan for meeting its customized goal and submit it to the EPA for approval.
Coal was once the source of about half of the nation’s electricity but is now at 40 percent. Even if the nation meets the proposed targets, coal would remain a leading fuel, providing more than 30 percent of the projected supply.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.