By RYAN J. FOLEY
Associated Press Writer
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Jim Doyle has backed off a campaign promise that four University of Wisconsin campuses will be energy independent by 2012 after determining it was not practical as proposed.
Weeks before he was re-elected in 2006, Doyle said campuses would “go off the grid” by becoming the first state agencies to purchase or produce as much energy from renewable sources as they consume. He said they would achieve that by replacing fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources like solar, wind and biomass.
The goal has since been changed to require the campuses to sharply reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, instead of ending them altogether or going off the grid entirely, by 2012. The change came into public view this month during a Board of Regents meeting.
Some university officials said the original plan never made much sense because “going off the grid” would have required them to start producing their own electricity instead of buying it from utilities, which was not feasible or cost-effective.
At the same time, they credit the challenge with spurring them to conserve energy, study alternative fuels, and purchase more renewable sources from the utilities that provide their electricity.
Doyle told reporters Wednesday his original vision may have been unrealistic because of the challenges associated with producing energy on campuses, but the program would still motivate students and university employees to reduce pollution.
“As we got into this … it became more practical for them to make sure the energy they do have is carbon neutral and they are reducing carbon emissions,” he said in a conference call from Copenhagen, where he attended the U.N. climate summit. “In some ways, maybe we got a little more real about this.”
Doyle toured the state by airplane with UW System President Kevin Reilly in September 2006 to announce the plan at news conferences on the campuses in Oshkosh, River Falls, Green Bay and Stevens Point. He promised they would be “completely energy independent within the next five years.”
Today, three of the four campuses continue to burn coal to heat and cool their buildings, and a UW System report this month noted the program did not come with any funding for projects. Some university officials said they remain confused by the new goal, which requires them to cut their carbon dioxide emissions to the level of those produced by their 2005 electricity consumption.
“Don’t even ask me to explain,” said Mike Stifter, the facilities management director at UW-River Falls. “I don’t know how public any of us would want to make that, but we’re still lacking a firm definition of what we’re talking about.”
David Osborn, a DOA official who coordinates the effort, disputed that, saying the new goal was for campuses to reduce emissions enough to offset their electricity usage as a step toward going off the grid.
He said they were making progress by increasing the amount of renewable energy purchased from utilities and taking steps to conserve energy. Osborn said it was difficult for campuses to produce their own energy, citing a lack of potential for wind in some cases, logistical problems with biomass, the high cost of solar and other challenges.
David Miller, a UW System associate vice president for capital planning and budget, said that “going off the grid” was a catchy phrase that never made literal sense. At the same time, he credited the governor for boldly challenging campuses to reduce their use of fossil fuels and study alternatives.
Stifter said UW-River Falls was studying the potential for installing wind turbines on its campus farm to produce electricity. He said the campus heating and cooling plant has also experimented with using biomass, but burning coal “is still your best bang for your buck.”
“I don’t know if by 2012 any of us still think we’re going to be off the grid by then, but we’ll be a lot further than we were in ’06 when the challenge was issued,” he said.
UW-Green Bay has reduced its energy use by 26 percent from 2005 to 2008 and tried a three-month pilot project to run its power plant with biodiesel. The project showed biodiesel would cost three times as much as natural gas and require more cleaning, said Paul Pinkston, the interim director of facilities management.
He said the new goal is clear, but reaching it by 2012 will still be a challenge. Miller downplayed the 2012 timeline.
“I understand why the governor put a date on it: It’s Kennedyesque, in this decade,” he said. “But I don’t think the literal date is as important as the initiative itself.”