A plan to spend $100 million on a boiler that would burn plant-based fuels at UW-Madison's Charter Street power plant was axed Thursday by Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch.
The DOA is overseeing the rebuild of the plant. Work will continue on outfitting the plant with new natural gas boilers. The cost of the project with the biofuel boiler would have been $250 million — the most expensive building project in the university's history.
Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker, said Huebsch halted spending on the boiler based on Walker's wishes. Walker, even before taking office, said he wanted the agency to focus instead on installing new natural gas boilers rather than the more expensive boiler that would be built to burn switchgrass, wood chips and other plant-based fuels grown in Wisconsin.
"Governor Walker expressed his opposition to the Charter biomass boiler back in November," Werwie said. "Today the governor followed through on his intention to save taxpayers money by stopping this project."
According to a 2008 university study, converting the plant to burn biofuel was the most expensive of the options considered and would be about twice as expensive as using other coal-burning technologies or natural gas.
University officials credited the strong support of former Gov. Jim Doyle for the plan to burn biofuels. Doyle and state environmentalists praised the switch to biofuels because such fuels can be grown in Wisconsin and would, in the long run, be more reliable and less expensive than natural gas, which must be purchased and piped in from out of state.
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But Jeff Plale, administrator of the Division of State Facilities, said the decision came down to cost, especially at a time when what he called an "austere" state budget is in the offing.
"The governor and Secretary Huebsch looked at that price tag and thought that it was awful high. It really came down to the price tag," Plale said.
Plale said no contracts had been signed for purchase of a boiler. He said money lost on planning for construction of the biofuel boiler was "minimal" but didn't have a specific figure.
The decision to eliminate the biofuel boiler from the Charter Street plant comes on the heels of a number of other Walker initiatives that have irked environmentalists — eliminating a Madison-to-Milwaukee passenger rail project, discouraging construction of wind power projects and easing regulations on construction in wetlands.
Jennifer Feyerherm of the Sierra Club said Walker's decision also wipes out construction, farming and logging jobs.
"Governor Walker has acted yet again to kill jobs in Wisconsin and waste taxpayer money," Feyerherm said. "While the biomass plant might cost more up front, it would have kept our money local, developed a new green energy infrastructure, created many more jobs and been a boon for our local economy."