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Sierra Club targets campus power plants

Paul Snyder
paul.snyder@dailyreporter.com

Emboldened by the conversion from coal at the Charter Street power plant in Madison, environmental groups now want a schedule for similar changes around Wisconsin.

But state leaders say they do not know where the money will come from for such switches.

“We certainly don’t have it in this budget,” said David Helbach, administrator in the state Department of Administration’s Division of State Facilities and secretary of the state Building Commission.

The state committed almost $251 million in its 2009-11 budget to convert the Charter Street plant on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus from a coal-burning operation to one that generates electricity using biomass and natural gas. The project is scheduled for a 2013 completion.

Now, four other UW System schools’ coal-fired power plants are up for state air permit reviews, and Jennifer Feyerherm, an associate regional representative for the Sierra Club, said she wants timelines from the DOA for conversions at those plants.

“Nobody is saying this needs to happen tomorrow,” she said. “We just want to know when it will.”

Plants under review by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources include those at the UW-Stout, the UW-Eau Claire, the UW-Stevens Point and the UW-La Crosse. Feyerherm said each plant was upgraded in recent years with equipment that falls short of standards set by the federal Clean Air Act of 1995.

According to state and federal guidelines, the state can approve routine maintenance and repair to plant equipment, such as boilers, installed before 1995 without seeking necessary clean air permits. But if it can be argued that the maintenance made significant changes and could have been done with the best available clean air technology, which is what the Sierra Club contends for all four cases, there is legal ground for a lawsuit.

The state’s failure to get such permits in its work at Charter Street helped spark the Sierra Club’s 2007 lawsuit. Feyerherm would not comment about the possibility of similar lawsuits if the DNR does not require upgrades at the four plants.

Ralph Patterson, the DNR’s emission inventory team leader, said the plants are not in violation of the state’s emissions standards.

The state should have seen calls coming for further plant conversions in the wake of the Charter Street agreement, Feyerherm said.

Wisconsin has a loose plan to reduce coal emissions at all state power plants, Helbach said, but it’s tough to set timelines.

“We’re looking at projects at UW-Stout and UW-Stevens Point right now,” he said. “And we are continually looking at campuses for ways to reduce CO2 emissions.

“But if a group like the Sierra Club is going to force us, the question then is one of money.”

Had the state only met minimum emission upgrades at Charter Street, Helbach said, it could have done it for less than $100 million. But going for a full conversion, he said, ended up reducing the state’s total coal use by 60 percent.

“I thought that’s what they were going for,” he said. “I thought we were talking about getting the biggest bang for the buck. If we do minimum upgrades at every plant, we only reduce our coal usage by 40 percent. I don’t think there’s any room for criticism.”

But Helbach said the Charter Street conversion is going to be primarily paid for by increases to student fees at UW-Madison, and putting that kind of stress on other UW System students likely will spark a major political battle.

Furthermore, he said, the state still needs to see how the market responds to the Charter Street conversion.

“We need to walk before we can run,” Helbach said. “Nobody has proven to us that the biomass market is going to be there for this.”

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