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Wisconsin regulator downplays blackout risk, calls for continued use of fossil fuels

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Columbia Energy Center

Public Service Commission member Ellen Nowak says Wisconsin should maintain fossil fuel resources like the Columbia Energy Center as part of an "all of the above" energy policy. Scheduled to close in 2026, the plant was the state's second-largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020.

A Wisconsin utility regulator says there is little risk of rolling blackouts this summer while warning against the retirement of fossil fuel generators.

Public Service Commission member Ellen Nowak downplayed reports issued this spring by the Midwest grid operator and an international grid monitor, which warned that generation capacity could fall short of demand in certain circumstances this summer.

While pointing out that there is always a risk of blackouts, Nowak said it would take a “perfect storm” — such as unplanned generator shutdowns combined with extreme heat or catastrophic weather — to trigger forced outages.

Ellen Nowak


“I am not hitting the panic button,” Nowak said.

Nowak, the only Republican appointee on the three-member PSC, made the comments in an online meeting organized by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby.

Scott Manley, executive director of the business group, said members have been asking since the initial report if they need to plan to be without electricity.

“It’s one of the top concerns we’ve been hearing about,” Manley said.

Nowak explained some of the reasons that the grid operator, known as MISO, does not have as much extra capacity as operators prefer, primarily in neighboring states like Illinois and Indiana.

Those reasons include retirements of coal and nuclear plants, delays in adding new generation and a lack of long-distance transmission lines to move excess power to where it’s needed.

“It is a wakeup call,” Nowak said of the reports. “I think it’s a good reality check about how the system works.”

Earlier this month, MISO’s independent watchdog said the grid should have ample supply this summer.

Nowak said the only customers likely to be impacted this summer are those in demand response programs, which reward participating customers for dialing back their electricity use at certain times to keep the system in balance.

In case of an emergency, Nowak said MISO would interrupt the largest loads — typically factories — first, and generally for short periods of time.

“MISO has never ordered load reduction for residential customers,” she said. “We don’t need to become preppers.”

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Nowak noted that Wisconsin utilities expected to have excess capacity in years to come — even before last week’s announcement that retirement of three coal-fired plants had been postponed.

But all five of the state’s largest utility companies say they will stop burning coal by 2040 and eliminate carbon emissions entirely by 2050, a policy Manley called “unserious.”

Panels of international scientists have warned the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of this decade and eliminate them entirely by 2050 to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change.

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Researchers at Princeton University and the federal Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory say it’s possible to meet the nation’s energy needs with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 using existing technology, though doing so would require massive investments in wind and solar generation as well as transmission lines.

Nowak said Gov. Tony Evers’ stated goal of achieving 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050 “scares” her, and cautioned against eliminating any source of generation.

“We still need an all-of-the above generation policy in our state,” Nowak said. “It doesn’t mean abandoning renewables ... it just means optimizing, not limiting, resources.”

“I'm not hitting the panic button, but it is a wakeup call. I think it’s a good reality check about how the system works.”

Commissioner Ellen Nowak, on MISO reliability warning

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