A state senator wants to let utilities meet renewable energy rules by getting more electricity from Canadian dams. The local “green power” industry doesn’t much like this. People who live in some Wisconsin environments will find it a relief, though.
Frank Lasee, a Green Bay Republican, would lift the rule that says utilities, under orders to sell more renewable power, can’t count electricity from dams of more than 60 megawatts. There are pros and cons to this, of course.
The Green Bay utility that asked for the bill, Wisconsin Public Service, says it’ll make for a more reliable and reliably affordable supply of power in the future. The utility now gets about 10% of its power from wind turbines and dams, mostly nearby. But when the company must someday replace its big “baseload” plants, it likely won’t be able to use coal, and nuclear’s a question mark.
If its new supplies must be renewable, Manitoba’s a good bet. Public Service wants to make a long-term deal to buy power from a planned 700-megawatt dam 450 miles north of Winnipeg. That deal only works if such power counts as “green.”
Which it is: Exactly as with windmills, dams burn no fuel and emit no carbon. Unlike windmills, they’re never becalmed. Their costs are much easier to predict than wind, says the company.
Backers of wind power don’t like Lasee’s bill. The anti-dam rule makes utilities patronize their products, which they say was the point. They say this will foster jobs.
It may, the way banning TV news might foster jobs in the newspaper industry. Then again, it’s just possible that if utilities didn’t have to overcharge customers to prop up a windmill industry, Wisconsinites would spend the savings in ways that foster more socially productive jobs – like schools or DNA sequencing or custard stands. Who knows, but it’s a loss to the economy to treat utility policy as a make-work program.
Greens don’t like Manitoba power for another reason: They don’t like dams. For years, they’ve moved to restrict imported power, talking of displaced Indian tribes and, as one group memorably put it, waters “tainted” by injustice.
It sounds noble. It’s also untrue. The power that Public Service seeks would come from a dam that’s actually supported by the Cree tribes that live nearby. The government-owned Manitoba Hydro signed pacts with all four laying out how it will limit harm to the tribes’ environs, and the Cree will own up to 25% of the dam and its revenue.
Then consider the alternative. Suppose Public Service must buy 700 megawatts from Wisconsin wind farms. Those have an effect on their environment, too.
Windmills mean rent for landowners who actually host them, but for people nearby, there’s noise, flickering shadows and, perched in bus-sized generator boxes 400 feet up, a new industrial vibe.
And maybe homelessness: Dave Enz lived near the hamlet of Shirley, 12 miles from Green Bay, since 1978. Last year, wind turbines arrived, several within a half-mile, and he had no inkling they’d be trouble. Then, he and his wife endured months of earaches, nausea and unexplained anxiety until they realized, when their symptoms vanished on vacation, that it was probably the turbines.
“It’s not the noise that gets you, the audible noise,” said Enz. It’s vibration: “It makes you want to run away.” He and his wife did, to their kids’ house. “We never expected to be homeless while we owned a home,” he said. The couple, in their upper 60s, are now looking for a campground to live in.
And the house? Enz says that in good conscience they can’t sell it.
That, and similar troubles reported by others who lived where windmills arrived, sound like environmental problems. If we’re comparing zero-carbon power sources, this counts. Dams are disruptive – in remote places, and the few neighbors can be compensated. Wind turbines are disruptive, too, but in well-peopled parts of Wisconsin, and so far the industry is blowing off the neighbors’ complaints.
Surely, if the point of renewable power is to spare the environment, keeping rural Wisconsin inhabitable counts for something.
Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist.