Governor-elect Scott Walker's order Thursday to axe a biofuels boiler for the redesigned Charter Street Heating Plant was met less with surprise than discouragement by supporters of the plan.
"It's disappointing," said Jennifer Feyerherm with the Sierra Club. "I think we're missing a great opportunity to invest in Wisconsin's future."
In a letter to Daniel Schoof, secretary of the state Department of Administration, Walker said he wants to shift plans to installing a natural gas boiler rather than the boiler that would burn alternative naturally grown fuels such as wood chips or switch grass. Such a move, Walker said, would save the state $100 million of the total $250 million cost of rebuilding the university's central heating and cooling plant so that it no longer burns coal.
Construction on the project is under way. Buildings on property just east of the plant have already been cleared to make way for storage silos and an unloading facility for biofuels.
The plant's redesign has been much touted by UW-Madison and outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle. The conversion of the plant from coal to natural gas and biofuels is the most expensive single project ever undertaken by the university.
University officials refused to comment on the situation and referred calls to the DOA because that agency oversees operation of the plant. The only response from the DOA on Thursday came in the form of a curt three-paragraph letter from Schoof to Walker. He said the plant "has natural gas capabilities along with the biomass fuel purchased from Wisconsin farmers and foresters."
The plant is being designed to burn both types of fuels, though adding the capacity to also burn biofuels was the most expensive of the changes being made.
According to a 2008 university study, converting the plant to burn biofuels was the most expensive of the options considered, about twice the cost of cleaner coal-burning technologies or natural gas. Also, according to university officials, cost of building the biofuel boiler is $125 million versus $25 million for a natural gas boiler.
But both Feyerherm and Gary Werner, with the Madison chapter of the Sierra Club, said the more expensive investment in biofuels makes more sense when almost certain future increases in the cost of natural gas are considered.
"Natural gas is not an infinite resource," said Werner. "There is going to come a day when natural gas is not as plentiful and is also more expensive. By building the biofuels boiler, we're positioning ourselves for the future rather than looking to the past."
Werner also said purchasing biofuels from farmers and foresters in Wisconsin will lead to an increase in jobs and more long-term stability for agriculture in the state. The transportation system put in place to bring the biofuels to Madison will also create jobs, Werner said.
"We don't have any natural gas here in Wisconsin," Werner said. "So every dollar spent on natural gas is a dollar leaving Wisconsin."
In his letter to Schoof, Walker said media reports have indicated that "natural gas actually scored the highest overall when judged on environmental, economic and reliability grounds."
Neither Walker nor his staff responded to a request for clarification on the origin of those media reports. But Werner said the comment may stem from the current lack of federal air standards for biofuels and from the process for buying and transporting biofuels still being in the planning stage.
But Werner said the long-term benefits of biofuels outweigh natural gas on all three counts.
"The basic premise of his campaign was promising to create 250,000 new jobs in Wisconsin," said Werner of Walker. "Everything I've heard from him so far is about cutting new jobs."