A bill being circulated in Madison would classify large dams built by Manitoba Hydro as renewable to help utilities comply with the state’s green energy mandate.
The bill aims to help a Green Bay utility tap hydro power from new dams to be built in Canada, but critics including solar companies and environmental groups say the move will scale back expansion of renewable energy sources in Wisconsin, which create jobs here.
Wisconsin’s renewable energy standard allows small hydroelectric plants to be eligible for compliance with the state mandate, but doesn’t allow large dams to qualify. The reason was to encourage more development of in-state renewable energy options.
Wisconsin utilities are in compliance with the state renewable targets, and most if not all of them are on track to meeting the 2015 target, that 10% of the state’s power come from renewable sources that year.
The bill, said Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere), is a way to provide utilities with a less costly form of renewable energy to comply with the mandate. Lasee is sponsoring the bill with Rep. John Klenke (R-Green Bay).
“We used to have very low electricity rates that were attractive rates for manufacturers. Now we have some of the highest electric rates in the country, which takes money out of people’s pockets and makes it more difficult to expand employment in Wisconsin,” said Lasee. “This will help keep electricity rates down and provide a green component to an energy portfolio.”
But critics of the proposal, including a trade group representing solar-industry manufacturers in Milwaukee and across the state, object to the goal of adding more renewable energy that would have to be imported into the state on high-voltage transmission lines.
“We believe Wisconsin should continue to invest in energy jobs in Wisconsin, not in foreign countries,” said Rex Gillespie, president of the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association and vice president of Caleffi North America in the Menomonee Valley.
“We want to ensure that Wisconsin maximizes its opportunities for solar jobs by requiring that the majority of our renewable energy comes from Wisconsin renewable energy sources, including solar.”
Wisconsin Public Service Corp. of Green Bay has been negotiating with Manitoba Hydro to buy a large amount of power in future years.
“At some point we’re going to be needing more renewable power,” said Charlie Severance, WPS general manager, wholesale electric and renewable energy.
In negotiations with Manitoba, WPS had made a legislative change in Wisconsin a condition of its purchase of more hydro power from Manitoba. But Severance said he could not comment on whether that is still a part of the proposal being discussed with Manitoba Hydro.
Severance said his company is in good shape to meet the 2015 renewable target with its development of a wind farm in Iowa and purchase of electricity from the Forward Wind Energy Center in Wisconsin.
But his company and other utilities are getting extra credit in the early years in the form of renewable energy credits that they can “bank” to help comply with the mandate. But withdrawals from that “bank” of renewable energy credits will mean the utilities won’t have enough green power later in this decade.
The controversy has surfaced before.
A similar measure was included as part of a legislative package last year that would have expanded Wisconsin’s renewable energy requirement. That proposal, part of legislation to implement recommendations of Gov. Jim Doyle’s global warming task forced, would have required 25% of the state’s electricity to come from green sources by 2025. It also would have relaxed the state’s ban on construction of nuclear reactors.
But having the proposal come up without expanding the renewable energy is bad for investment in Wisconsin, said Jennifer Giegerich of the League of Conservation Voters.
“It’s energy that’s being generated in Canada and that doesn’t do anything to create jobs in Wisconsin or make Wisconsin energy independent,” she said.
The proposal will “undermine Wisconsin’s clean energy projects and send our ratepayer money to a foreign utility,” the group said.
For Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service, having access to Manitoba Hydro will help the utility balance the state’s renewable energy goals with a desire to keep energy costs palatable for businesses, said Severance, .
“It’s as important in terms of job preservation or creation to have attractive electric rate as it is to do things that create jobs within the state,” he said.
The utility has studied the possibility of importing a significant amount of new generation – the equivalent of a new coal-fired power plant – from Manitoba. But proposals to build large dams in Manitoba are still going through the regulatory process so it’s likely a smaller purchase of power from Manitoba dams may come first, he said.
“In the long run we know that the possibility for large-scale hydro exists in Manitoba and that is a zero-carbon emission resource,” Severance said. “We’d very much like to keep options open, keep that as a legitimate potential source of carbon-neutral electricity for our customers.”
WPS and Manitoba Hydro have been in talks for several years of a large purchase of power from new dams in Manitoba. Some of those dams would require new transmission investments both in Canada and the United States.
WPS will need more renewable energy later in the decade or early in the next decade to comply with the current mandate, Severance said.
“We don’t want to handicap any specific carbon-neutral technology,” with the government in the position of “picking winners and losers” when it comes to renewable energy technologies, Severance said.
The latest proposal comes after the Walker administration and Republicans in the Legislature moved to thwart development of wind farms in a bid to protect property rights for people who live near large wind turbines.
Renewable energy advocates are troubled that the state is moving away from clean energy sources at a time when other countries and states are moving toward.
Manitoba Hydro would provide so much power that it would reduce the need for in-state generation, said Gillespie. “They could fulfill the entire renewable portfolio standard from that one source, and we’d like to keep it diversified. It’s good to have a diversified portfolio,” he said.
But Lasee, who said he expected the full Legislature would act on his proposal by June, said his bill was important to help bring the state back from “the policies of the left” that have promoted renewable energy sources that receive tax subsidies from cash-strapped government.
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