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EDITORIAL: Renewable energy should be common ground

We know common ground in the state government is hard to come by, but let us suggest something that really shouldn’t be difficult. We’d like to see the Legislature find ways to boost renewable energy in Wisconsin.

There are sound reasons for such an effort that should satisfy both conservatives and liberals. Renewable energy has traditionally been pitched as an environmental cause, and there are certainly benefits there. But the reality is that the advantages go far beyond tree-hugging. Renewable energy has the potential to be an economic driver, a source of new technological innovation, boosted tax revenue and jobs that are better suited to the coming decades’ changes than many others.

The efforts don’t need to be concentrated on large-scale projects like wind farms, either. While those are increasingly common sights in the Midwest, they aren’t the only option. In fact, they may not even be the best option in many places.

Vertical axis wind turbines can work in surprising locations. They’re less vulnerable to turbulence created by wind swirling around buildings, and some are even used as kinetic art. They tend to be a lot quieter than their gigantic cousins, too.

Solar systems are becoming more popular, especially as they become more efficient. Early solar power grids didn’t convert much of the sun’s energy into electricity. But better materials and research are changing the game.

There are other forms of environmentally friendly power, but let’s focus on solar and wind to start. In both cases the technology and acceptance is growing at a good clip. Installation and maintenance require skills that will remain in demand for decades. The research and production of the materials also means jobs in the United States.

The reality is that the power grid will need new sources in the coming decades. The increasing adoption of electrical vehicles will raise demand. And it’s not just going to be the United States pushing that trend. The simple fact is major changes are coming.

In Norway, electric vehicles now make up a majority of cars sold. The U.K. will prohibit sales of cars running only on fossil fuels as of 2030. Many other European nations have similar targets, and the EU itself is mooting a phase-out of such vehicles on a continent-wide basis.

It’s not just Europe, either. India is considering similar moves, as are Japan, Costa Rica and even Egypt. Traditional automakers are taking notice, increasing their efforts to produce electric vehicles. In fact, in Norway it’s VW, not Tesla, selling the most electric cars.

As research and investment grow in a bid to meet demand elsewhere, automakers will have considerable incentive to also broaden the market in the United States. That means we’ll need new ways to produce electricity here.

While we’re not forecasting the end of the oil industry (we know a thing or two about people wrongly predicting an industry’s demise), it seems probable that it will change dramatically as demand shifts. If Wisconsin acts now to make the state more accommodating of solar and wind power, the state could well set itself up to benefit handsomely over the next few decades.

While Wisconsin has unique challenges in terms of weather and terrain, it’s also clear that clean energy can and does work in the region. Minnesota and Iowa, neighboring states, both produce considerably more renewable energy than Wisconsin.

Nor is Wisconsin starting from scratch. We already see more renewable energy generated here than either Illinois or Michigan. But we shouldn’t settle for middle-of-the-pack results. Wisconsin can, and should, be a bigger player in renewable energy.

And that’s where the Legislature comes in. There are plenty of ways it can help boost Wisconsin’s approach. Better tax incentives for installation of renewable energy options could come into play. Mandates for renewable energy in new construction might also be an option.

It’s not difficult to see that the future is going to look considerably different in terms of how people produce energy for use at home or work. History suggests that once such shifts begin, they can move far more rapidly than people would have expected. Wisconsin’s best move is to prepare for the coming changes, to help drive them.

And it really shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

— From the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

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