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We Energies plans $250 million biomass power plant

Sean Ryan
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We Energies is counting on a proposed $250 million biomass plant in Rothschild to put the utility one step closer to meeting the state’s 2015 deadline to produce more renewable energy.

The plant will burn wood, sawdust and waste to generate 50 megawatts of electricity. It will be built on the same property as Domtar Corp.’s paper mill in Rothschild and would supply steam to run the company’s factory.

The biomass plant, along with two We Energies wind farms, are to help the utility comply with the state requirement that 10 percent of Wisconsin’s power must come from renewable sources by 2015, said Gale Klappa, We Energies chairman, president and chief executive officer. The Blue Sky Green Field wind farm in Fond du Lac County will generate 145 megawatts, and the proposed Glacier Hills Wind Park in Columbia County would generate 162 megawatts.

The utility is pursing biomass for its next renewable energy project because We Energies needs more variety, Klappa said. Unlike wind farms, which generate power at the whim of the wind, the biomass plant can run 24 hours a day, he said.

“In Wisconsin in particular, the winds are the most prevalent at night and in the winter time,” Klappa said. “So we do not think it’s prudent to meet the standard with only wind.”

Local access to trees and plants to be burned in biomass plants exceeds the state’s wind-power potential, said Thad Nation, executive director of Clean, Responsible Energy for Wisconsin’s Economy, an advocacy group comprised of utilities and other companies.

However, it can be difficult for utilities to find sources of wood or other fuels for biomass plants, Nation said.

But We Energies’ approach to buying wood through Domtar’s existing purchasing network can be a model for future projects, he said.

“As you look at any of these biomass projects moving forward, this is going to be one of the largest issues they have to deal with,” Nation said, “which is where to get the fuel from.”

The biomass plant is a good step forward, but We Energies will need more renewable energy projects to meet the state’s 10 percent rule, said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin. The plans to either build projects or buy renewable energy from other companies will eventually result in higher electricity prices in the state, he said.

“I think it will be modest,” Vickerman said, “but there will be some impact.”

Klappa said the new plant is as cost-effective as any other approach at generating more renewable energy.

He said the utility is pursuing other sources of renewable electricity, both through new projects and by purchasing electricity.

We Energies will request approval from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin in 2010 to build the biomass plant and plans to complete the project in the first half of 2013. The project to build the plant will create 400 jobs, and We Energies will employ 150 people there once it goes online.

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