As the cost of wind and solar power continues to fall, a new organization is pushing the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature to embrace renewable energy and begin working on policies to address a rapidly changing marketplace.
“Clean energy may very well now be the cheapest source of energy,” Scott Coenen, executive director of the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum, told a handful of lawmakers this week at a briefing at the state Capitol.
Over the past decade, the costs of wind and solar technologies have fallen dramatically.
Even without subsidies, the total cost to build and operate utility-scale wind and solar power plants is now cheaper on average than any other type of plant, even natural gas, according to financial advisory firm Lazard. In some cases it can be less expensive than it is to run an existing coal plant.
Coenen said that’s a challenging reality for some of those on the right, who have railed against government subsidies and mandates that helped get renewables off the ground.
“I spent 10 years arguing against renewables,” Coenen, a former legislative aide and Republican campaign manager, told lawmakers Tuesday. “Those arguments have been true. ... They’re not true anymore.”
Launched in late 2017 as part of a national network, the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum promotes an “all of the above” energy strategy to policymakers on the right. Unlike most clean energy groups, WCEF supports nuclear and natural gas as well as traditional renewables like wind, solar and biomass.
Clean energy also represents an opportunity for Wisconsin, which has no significant fossil fuel resources, to develop home-grown energy.
“We’re a net energy importer, which means we’re a net money exporter,” said Maria Redmond, director of the state’s Office of Energy Innovation, which is charged with securing the state's energy needs while improving the economy and environment. “How can we keep the money here in the state?”
One of the casualties of the falling cost of wind and solar has been biomass digesters, which convert cow manure -- one of the dairy state’s largest resources and liabilities -- into energy.
Lawmakers heard from Jessica Niekrasz, chief administrative officer of Clean Fuel Partners, which operates two digesters — including one in Dane County, which in 2017 generated about 11,600 megawatt-hours of electricity for Alliant Energy.
The contract with Alliant ends in 2020, and with access to far cheaper sources of renewable energy, utilities are dialing back the rates paid to encourage digesters. Without that premium rate, the generators aren’t profitable.
Niekrasz hopes CFP will be able to find new markets for methane from biomass, though she said more research and development is needed to come up with better uses for the leftover fiber, which is now a liability.
Coenen urged lawmakers to begin working on policies to address issues such as:
- How to pay for trillions of dollars of investments in coal-fired plants, many of which are now money-losers.
- Making sure Wisconsin is training workers to fill some of the fastest-growing occupations: solar installers and wind technicians.
- Supporting the establishment of more electric vehicle charging stations.
- Addressing third-party financing of rooftop solar panels, a brewing battle between utilities and solar developers who want to be able to lease equipment to home and business owners.
“There’s a lot of big questions that are going to come up in the next couple of decades,” Coenen said.