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Walker rejects biomass boiler for power plant

The Charter Street Heating Plant on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus was supposed to switch from its coal-fired burners to two boilers that run on natural gas and a third that would burn biomass. Gov. Scott Walker scrapped the biomass plans Thursday. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

By DINESH RAMDE
Associated Press

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker scrapped plans Thursday to convert a power plant to run on natural fuels such as wood chips and paper pellets, a move that could save up to $100 million but drew stern criticism from at least one environmental group.

The decision affects the Charter Street Heating Plant on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Its coal-fired burners will be retired next year and were to be replaced with two boilers that run on natural gas and a third that would burn biomass, state officials said.

However, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said only the natural-gas burners will be installed.

“We have decided not to proceed with the biomass boiler in order to save the state taxpayers money,” he said in a statement.

The savings would come from avoiding construction costs of about $100 million, he said. It was not clear whether the third planned boiler would be replaced or the two natural gas boilers would produce enough power on their own.

Jeff Plale, an administrator for the state Division of State Facilities, said Walker and Huebsch realized there were cheaper ways to meet the university’s heating needs while still being environmentally friendly.

“Natural gas is a clean source of energy, certainly cleaner than coal,” Plale said. “That plant is going to be a whole lot cleaner than it is today. Couple that with being able to save $100 million during a very difficult budget and I think the people of Wisconsin come out better.”

In 2008, then-Gov. Jim Doyle announced that the plant would switch from coal to biomass in part to settle a Sierra Club lawsuit claiming that the plant violated air-pollution laws. Thursday’s move does not risk reopening the lawsuit because the plant is still moving away from coal.

The decision to walk away from biomass shows a lack of long-term thinking, Sierra Club spokeswoman Jennifer Feyerherm said. She called it another in a string of Walker’s actions that kills jobs and wastes money while missing a chance to develop greener solutions.

“This was a way to keep money local, to keep the investment in Wisconsin,” she said. “While up front it may seem to cost more, it would have kept the money local, created a green infrastructure and created local jobs.”

She said the jobs would include growing and harvesting the biomass, converting it into a form that could burned and transporting it to the plant.

Walker had expressed his opposition to the biomass boiler back in November, spokesman Cullen Werwie said.

“Today the governor followed through on his intention to save taxpayers money by stopping this project,” Werwie said in an e-mail.

State Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, said she was disappointed by the decision and called on Walker to reconsider.

“We should be promoting and not impeding steps to develop clean energy here in Wisconsin,” she said in a statement. “There is no question that renewable energy can be a powerful economic engine for our state.”

This isn’t the first Doyle-era plan that Walker has reversed. He also dropped plans for high-speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee, turning his back on $810 million in federal money after saying the state could get stuck paying for maintenance.

Plale said some work had already begun at the Charter Street plant, but most of it was related to the natural-gas boilers. He said the biomass boiler hadn’t been ordered or paid for yet and no construction costs had been incurred.

“There was just some preliminary design work done,” he said, adding that it was difficult to put a dollar figure on that effort.

Environmental groups had been pleased by the idea of a biomass boiler, even though the benefits weren’t immediately certain. A consultants’ report in 2009 warned that uncertainty over the availability and cost of biomass fuels made the $251 million plan somewhat risky.

The report said there was “a significant risk” that not enough biomass supply would be available, and if natural-gas costs came down enough the biomass fuel supplies might not be a better value.

Despite Thursday’s decision, Feyerherm said the silver lining was that the upgraded plant will be better for the environment, even if biomass fuels aren’t used.

“The fact that Charter Street is being rebuilt to not burn coal at all is still really good news for Dane County’s air quality,” she said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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