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Laura Lane: Let's debunk arguments on why Wisconsin can't get rid of coal

Trump EPA close to gutting Obama rule on coal power plants (copy) (copy)

In this July 27, 2018, file photo, the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. 

We need bold action on climate change from the Governor’s Climate Task Force. The task force must set goals for eliminating the use of fossil fuels and closing down Wisconsin’s remaining coal plants by 2030.

And yet, at its Aug. 26 meeting, the Task Force discussed carbon reduction goals that fell dramatically short of this target. The goals put forth included:

  • By 2030, reduce power sector net carbon emissions by at least 60% while allowing flexibility to allow utilities to maintain reliable, resilient and cost-effective infrastructure.
  • By 2050, reduce power sector net carbon emissions by 100%.
  • Cost effective closure and/or reduced use of coal facilities.

We only have until 2030 to limit catastrophic climate change, according to a report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Wisconsin must go coal free and transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030. The Task Force’s proposed carbon reduction goals are too little, too late when it comes to limiting climate change.

That’s why it was extremely disheartening to hear utility representatives voice concerns at the August meeting about achieving even these most unambitious goals.

Reliability. Cost. Technology. These are the tired, old excuses utility executives keep marching out when saying why Wisconsin can’t follow neighboring states and get rid of dirty, costly coal plants. 

At the Aug. 26 meeting, Mike Peters, president and CEO of WPPI Energy, said, “The 2030 goal is more of a concern ... since it is a goal we’re not going to oppose it, but we do need to remember that reliability and cost must continue to be a concern that gets raised throughout this. Although there have been studies, there hasn’t been any studies that have looked specifically at each individual utility for Wisconsin.” 

Let’s debunk these arguments.

First, replacing coal with clean energy won’t risk reliability. Clean energy has proven to be a reliable and affordable alternative to coal and other fossil fuel-generated power. Battery storage technology has steadily improved and become less expensive over time too. 

Second, related technologies, like energy efficiency and demand response, play an often overlooked role in bringing affordable clean energy online. There is huge potential for energy efficiency and demand response programs that help save industrial and even residential customers money while making our grid more agile and reliable for future generations. 

These kinds of programs can help manage energy demand during peak times when the grid is stressed (like a hot summer day) so that everyone who needs energy has it as affordably as possible. Since they do not rely on building new grid infrastructure, these technologies have the ability to save customers money.

Third, burning coal wastes utility customers’ money. Wisconsin has some of the highest rates for energy in the Midwest. Renewable sources such as solar and wind now cost less than energy generated from coal.

Clean energy is also good for Wisconsin’s economy. A pivot to clean energy would provide economic and employment opportunities in the state to build those solar and wind farms and implement energy efficiency programs.

Fourth, the Sierra Club has done studies on individual utilities in Wisconsin. For example, the Sierra Club released a white paper on Alliant Energy and found:

  • A clean energy portfolio could provide the same energy and capacity requirements as the Alliant coal plants at a lower cost as early as 2026.
  • The Columbia and Edgewater coal plants lost $16 million in 2019 relative to the cost of market-based energy and capacity. 
  • Operating these plants through 2030 would incur losses to Alliant’s ratepayers of up to $461 million.
  • Alliant could continue to satisfy its reliability requirements while retiring both Columbia and Edgewater prior to 2030 and replacing them with clean energy. 

Despite this evidence, Wisconsin utilities continue to cling to dirty, expensive coal. Wind and solar power are available and thriving throughout the Midwest, but utilities aren’t taking advantage of clean energy in Wisconsin at the same rate as our neighboring states. We are falling behind.

Burning coal costs us. It is responsible for one third of carbon emissions-the main contributor to climate disruption-in the U.S. It pollutes our air and water. Mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants has also contaminated every lake, river and waterway in Wisconsin. 

Renewable energy moves Wisconsin forward. Simply put, it is better for our planet, our people, and our pocketbooks. That’s why it is vital that Wisconsin’s clean energy policy eliminates the use of coal by 2030 and promotes adoption of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. 

Laura Lane is a Sierra Club member and volunteer with the Beyond Coal Campaign in Madison.

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