MGE Solar

Madison Gas & Electric solar panels are seen on Middleton's public works Operations Center in March. MGE has new plans to build a 17,000-panel solar array on a field next to the Middleton Municipal Airport.

After years of getting a cold shoulder from Wisconsin Republicans, renewable energy proponents are now drawing conservative support, albeit with a different motivation than what’s driving some progressive advocates.

“We come at this from a free-market point of view, a conservative point of view,” said Scott Coenen, executive director of the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum, formed two years ago to push for a market-based approach to reshaping the state’s energy landscape.

But there’s one subject you won’t catch Coenen using when discussing renewables.

“Climate is without a doubt the most divisive reason to support renewable energy,” he said.

Coenen was participating in a panel discussion on renewables Friday at the Concourse Hotel. The event was organized by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership. With him were Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, Lawrence Makovich, energy adviser for the global information firm IHS Markit, and Tim Donohue, director of the U.S. Department of Energy funded Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center on the UW-Madison campus.

Coenen’s place on the panel would have surprised even him in years past. He’s been steeped in Republican politics, campaigned for Republican candidates, worked for Republican lawmakers in the state Senate.

“I’ve been involved in conservative politics for 10, 15 years now,” he said. “I’ve been arguing against renewables all of those years. I’ve made all of those arguments that they’re not competitive in the marketplace, they don’t work without inefficient government mandates, without tax credits, it’s not ready for prime time.”

He said those arguments were on the mark in their day. But with the plunging price of wind and solar energy, "they are no longer correct.”

While Coenen has been making the transition from anti- to pro-renewables, Huebner has stayed firmly on the path toward a renewable future, from heading up a student clean-energy coalition at Stanford more than a decade ago to leading RENEW for the past six years.

He said the decrease in the cost of wind and solar over 10 years — 69% for wind and from 75% to 88% for solar — is transforming the utility industry.

“What we are seeing as far as what’s coming next is the fact that these technologies are cost effective," he said, "and now we have more and more customers and utilities looking to add these."

Three large wind and solar projects have already been approved, he said, and two more are in the pipeline.

“We know there’s a lot more in development,” he said.

He said if all those development plans came to fruition, the percentage of Wisconsin’s energy produced by solar would jump from less than 1% to 17%. Development from wind would add about 6.2% to the state’s electrical output.

“This is a strategy to get to 34 percent % renewable electricity based on the amount of electricity we use today in Wisconsin,” he said.

But he pointed out that’s only a third of the way to a 100% renewable energy landscape.

Donohue, who has led the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center for 12 years, also serves as interim director of the UW-based Wisconsin Energy Institute, a clean energy organization that was once targeted for defunding by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The Great Lakes center is tackling the future of renewable energy from a different angle: producing fuel and chemicals from non-food producing plants, such as switchgrass.

The Departments of Energy and Agriculture, he said, have challenged the center “to replace 30% of the fossil fuel hydrocarbons and fuels with plant biomass-based fuels.”

“To put that in perspective, the fossil fuel and chemical industry is a multi-trillion-dollar-a-year industry,” he said.

Ultimately, the center is hoping to lay the groundwork for a system of local fuel and chemical economies in rural areas, increasing the nation’s clean-energy output and giving a much-needed boost to rural economies.

Makovich, an energy economist, said one way to get more renewables on the market is to start putting a price on the amount of carbon that utilities spew into the air, a solution that fits with free-market approaches and that is being tried in California and the Northwest.

“Get rid of the mandates, get rid of the subsidies, put an appropriate price on CO2 in a well-structured market and you’re going to get an efficient result,” he said.

He wasn’t in agreement, however, with Coenen’s contention that talking about climate change poisons the conversation about renewables.

“We wouldn’t be talking about renewables if climate change weren’t the problem,” he said.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.