Lawmakers, unions and utilities agree they want Wisconsin’s renewable energy goals to create more jobs in the state.
But the common ground crumbles when the sides consider ways to make sure that happens. Utilities want trust. Lawmakers want percentages. Unions want work.
“Look, we’re in it for jobs,” said Tom Fisher, president and business manager of the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council. “We don’t want to drive jobs away from Wisconsin.”
Utilities in Wisconsin agree in principle, but building outside of the state sometimes is the best option for the best price, said Dave Donovan, manager of Wisconsin regulatory policy for Xcel Energy.
“It’s not that renewable energy is not available in Wisconsin,” he said. “The question is: at what cost?”
Xcel is crunching the numbers, and its answer to that question could determine the utility’s support or opposition to local power requirements in a recently released draft bill based on recommendations by the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming.
The bill would require utilities generate 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. The bill breaks down the requirement further by directing utilities to generate 40 percent of that renewable electricity in Wisconsin.
“I think it’s a reasonable request,” said state Rep. Jim Soletski, D-Green Bay, a co-author of the bill. “The idea is to make the business more homegrown and not have utilities just going out and purchasing power from elsewhere.”
Utilities such as Alliant Energy are tapping out-of-state renewable resources, such as the company’s planned Bent Tree Wind Farm in southeastern Minnesota.
But Scott Reigstad, Alliant spokesman, said the farm will account for only one-fourth of the utility’s renewable electricity output by 2012. The rest, he said, will be generated in Wisconsin.
Donovan said Xcel’s work at its Ashland plant is an example of the company keeping jobs in the state. He said he expects the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin soon will grant final approval for the utility to convert one more boiler to burn biomass.
“We understand that we’re going to be required to install power and meet certain standards in Wisconsin,” Donovan said. “We always consider Wisconsin when we’re looking at a new project. But we would prefer there not be limits, or if there are, they be more flexible.”
Bill co-author state Sen. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee, said he is not committed to the 40 percent requirement.
“A lot of people have called my office already with concerns, and I keep saying this thing is going to change complexion a lot before it’s all said and done,” he said. “The 40 percent figure was in the recommendations, so it’s in the bill.
Whether it’s attainable is going to be a hot debate.
“I don’t know that it is, and I don’t know that it isn’t.”
The bill’s authors are scheduled to meet Tuesday with members of the Global Warming Task Force to discuss the bill and possible changes. Plale said public comments also likely will lead to changes.
Whatever those changes may be, the bill needs to guarantee utilities will get power from Wisconsin, said Michael Vickerman, executive director of nonprofit environmental group RENEW Wisconsin.
“Right now, there’s no difference in gaining credit between building a turbine in Iowa or downtown Milwaukee,” he said. “Wind benefits construction, and if utilities are putting up wind farms there, it’s a lot more likely they’re going to go with an Iowa contractor.”
That is why labor unions are keeping a close eye on the bill, Fisher said.
“It’s always going to be a concern,” he said. “We don’t want to be left with nothing.”