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Renewable energy producers may blur borders

Paul Snyder
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A renewable energy research partnership between Wisconsin and Manitoba could fuel advances in the field while giving utilities an opening to build projects outside the state.

Gov. Jim Doyle on Thursday signed an agreement with Manitoba Premier Gary Doer for the state and Canadian province to promote extended trade partnerships and collaborate on, among other things, renewable energy research.

“Manitoba’s been a great leader on this and has a diverse set of sources,” Doyle said, referring to the province’s hydroelectric power projects and the way in which Manitoba’s agricultural and forest resources are tied to cellulosic ethanol development. “There’s a lot we can work together on.”

Wisconsin Public Service Corp. already has signed an agreement with Manitoba Hydro for up to 500 megawatts of electricity that will boost the Wisconsin utility’s renewable energy supply. Doyle said other Wisconsin utilities could follow WPS’ lead.

The increased research and cooperation between the two governments “absolutely” will lead to development, said Mark Bugher, director of University Research Park in Madison. But, he said, the development might not be focused in Wisconsin.

Bugher said Wisconsin, Minnesota and Manitoba will discuss more collaborative efforts at a bioenergy summit next year.

The collaboration could lead to a blurring of borders, particularly if renewable energy constitutes 25 percent of Wisconsin utilities’ overall electricity output by 2025. Wisconsin Power & Light Co., for instance, is trying to increase its renewable energy output by pursuing approval for a large Minnesota wind farm project, the electricity from which would serve Wisconsin customers.

We Energies, said utility spokesman Brian Manthey, also is willing to consider projects outside Wisconsin. He said We Energies found in-state sites for its three largest renewable energy projects — wind farms in Fond du Lac and Columbia counties and a biomass plant in Rothschild.

“We’re going to look into any options that are able to reach our customers in the most cost-effective way,” he said. “Hopefully, that’s in Wisconsin, but we’re open to whatever in the Midwest works.”

Hydroelectric and wind resources are less promising in Wisconsin than they are elsewhere, said Todd Stuart, executive director of the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group., so it’s natural for utilities to consider gathering renewable electricity from outside the state.

“You do want to see development in Wisconsin,” Stuart said, “but if you’re in a place of building a lot of infrastructure even if you don’t need it, that’s not good for economic development.”

Renewable energy development is a regional game, said Joshua Morby, executive director of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance. But, he said, Wisconsin, with its forests and agriculture base, could have an edge in hosting ethanol plants.

Those projects, Morby said, likely will not happen until cellulosic research advances.

“When it comes to ethanol plants, we’ve seen more than a billion dollars’ worth of development since 2002,” he said. “Are we going to see that in the next seven years? No, probably not. But certainly we’re more apt to see development in new technology.”

That’s the kind of research and advancement that can and should happen under the Wisconsin-Manitoba agreement, Bugher said.

But if renewable energy options are more attractive in Manitoba or Minnesota, Stuart said, Wisconsin shouldn’t force the in-state issue.

“Electrons,” he said, “don’t know state borders.”

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