How and from where do Wisconsinites get their electricity? Or as electricity junkies of the future will say, "Where’d you get those electrons, Rufus?"
Wisconsin currently gets 60 percent of its electricity from coal. The majority (80 percent) of that coal is shipped in by railcar from Wyoming. Wisconsin’s coal consumption is just above the national average.
The second largest energy source in Wisconsin is nuclear power from two plants on Lake Michigan – Point Beach Nuclear Plant (one of the oldest operating plants in the United States) and Kewaunee Nuclear Power Plant. Nuclear power supplies 17 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity.
Natural gas piped from Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Canada is used to produce 16 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity. Natural gas heats about two thirds of Wisconsin homes.
Other renewable energies produce about two percent of Wisconsin’s electricity and have significant room to grow. Technologies are advancing and the costs of production are going down, which means capital investments required are decreasing. Soon, costs will be comparable to conventional sources of energy.
According to the United States Energy Information Administration, "In 2006, Wisconsin adopted a renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to produce ten percent of their electricity from renewable sources – including solar, wind, hydroelectric power, biomass, geothermal technology, tidal or wave action and fuel cell technology that uses qualified renewable fuels – by 2015."
With an impending cost of carbon, renewable energies will be getting more attention. From an efficiency standpoint, producing energy close to where it is consumed is desirable. To improve the efficiency further, feedstock should be sourced as close as possible to where it is used. Most renewable energies are great at that. What’s more, Wisconsin sends money out of state to produce energy that could be produced here.
Wisconsin has all of the utility-scale hydroelectric power it can, and large-scale solar farms are not yet practical in these Northerly climates. However, there are significant wind farm opportunities along Lake Erie and across the driftless region.
You may be aware that Wisconsin has lots of bovine inhabitants (livestock), cheese, food scraps and organic materials that may have waste components. These "wastes" could be collected and processed at a facility, which would turn them into biogas and finished compost.
Biogas, the result of the anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition of biodegradable materials, is currently and can be used in the same manner as natural gas or methane.
"Enough biogas could be generated around Wisconsin to power about one third of the state," said Erik Singsaas, Director of Research for the Wisconsin Institute of Sustainable Technology and Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
So, what will be the future of energy in Wisconsin? We do not know. With so many technologies developing and blossoming, it is unclear as to which ones will be adopted. There is also a conflict as to which model to follow, just like Einstein and Westinghouse’s debate in the early 1900s over alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC).
"We have two competing models and we don’t know yet what model is the best model economically. The current model, which is centralized generation, with scale advantages that come from a big central power plant, or the distributed model that is more economic. The regulatory incentives favor the former, not the latter. It all comes down to if there will be a cost for carbon," said Richard Kauffman, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Energy.
Carbon is a big issue right now, as the United Nations may become a global regulatory force. International standards would need to be followed along with United States’ state and local regulations. This makes planning and development difficult, and may be a deal-breaker for investors.
Never fear--in case of emergency, Wisconsin’s forests have enough biomass to provide nine years’ worth of electricity.