Barack Obama
Though Gov. Scott Walker has proposed strict rules that could hamper the wind power industry, President Barack Obama visited a wind turbine tower manufacturer in Manitowoc, Wis., on Jan. 26, where he talked about jobs and the economy. J. Scott Applewhite — Associated Press

When President Obama toured the state last week, he visited two companies in Manitowoc to promote Wisconsin's high-tech, clean-energy economy.

First, the president stopped at Tower Tech Systems, which manufactures utility-scale wind towers. Then he toured Orion Energy Systems, which makes high-efficiency lighting and solar-focused products.

"These aren't just good jobs that can help you pay the bills and support your families," the president told some 200 workers at Orion. "They're jobs that are good for all of us; that will make our energy bills cheaper; that will make our planet safer; that will sharpen America's competitive edge in the world."

But some are wondering whether Gov. Scott Walker, despite his "open for business" mantra, and the new Legislature share the same enthusiasm for emerging technologies and the promise of high-paying jobs.

During his first month in office, Walker has proposed strict rules that could hamper the wind power industry, nixed the Charter Street Biomass Project on the UW-Madison campus and returned more than $800 million in federal money for upgrading Wisconsin's passenger and freight rail infrastructure. There's also talk about limiting embryonic stem cell research, an issue that's more symbolic than substantive.

Put together, it's not exactly what economic development advocates were hoping to see from a governor who's vowed to create 250,000 new private sector jobs.

"I don't want to get in trouble here ... but there's some hand-wringing among our members," says Bryan Renk, who heads BioForward, a trade association for the state's bioscience and biofuel industry.

Both Gov. Tommy Thompson and Gov. Jim Doyle were big supporters of emerging technologies. Doyle in particular backed clean-energy initiatives and pushed a sweeping renewable energy bill in his last term that eventually died in the Legislature.

Renk certainly hasn't given up on Walker and says the governor has invited BioForward to participate in discussions on a new jobs bill. "At least we've got some access," says Renk. "We're staying optimistic."

So are other business development groups - even though Walker's initial actions run counter to portions of the agenda espoused by the Wisconsin Technology Council and Competitive Wisconsin, organizations that have urged investment in biotechnology, green power and emerging technologies. One of WTC's reports even features a picture of business executives riding in a modern train car and champions high-speed rail as central to the "IQ Corridor" linking Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis.

WTC President Tom Still admits there's a danger Wisconsin could lose momentum around technologies like advanced wind power, next-generation biofuels and energy storage systems if the message is sent that energy and conservation innovation aren't welcome here.

But Still says he believes Gov. Walker is simply taking a tough look at all government spending and notes that burning wood or switchgrass pellets at the Charter Street heating plant was estimated to cost $75 million more than burning natural gas. Still also points out that a proposed biomass-fueled power plant in Ashland was mothballed by Xcel Energy in November over cost concerns.

"It's not just Walker who has questioned the cost of biomass projects - but watchdog groups like the Citizens Utility Board," says Still.

Competitive Wisconsin, a bipartisan group founded in 1981, has also long backed technology development and in 2008 emerged as a major backer of Doyle's clean-energy initiative.

Tom Hefty, former CEO of health insurer Cobalt Corp. and a Competitive Wisconsin member, says it's understandable that Madison environmentalists were taken aback by Walker's first month in office. But he says the governor is sticking to his promises and working to create an environment where the private sector can flourish.

"You may recall that in Tommy's first term, Madisonians were as skeptical about Tommy Thompson as they are today about Scott Walker," says Hefty. "The Madison skeptics were wrong about Thompson and in my view they are wrong about Scott Walker."

The president's visit to Wisconsin did put jobs and the Wisconsin economy into the national spotlight. It sparked interest from the American Manufacturing Association, which used the Obama tour to call for tougher trade policies and a coordinated job growth policy.

The group noted that manufacturing has traditionally been Wisconsin's strongest employment sector, above even farming. More recently, however, Wal-Mart has grown into the state's largest private sector employer.

AMA reports that while 436,500 Wisconsinites still work in manufacturing, that figure is down 27 percent from 594,100 in 2000. It estimates the state has lost 52,200 jobs to China since 2001, nearly 2 percent of total employment in the state.

"The president said a lot of good things on his visit to Manitowoc but the part still missing is how aggressive we're going to be on the trade front," says Scott Paul, executive director of the Washington-based group.

Rep. Peter Barca, the leading Democrat in the state Assembly, used the Obama visit to question Walker's commitment to clean-energy jobs. He noted that developing alternative energy is especially crucial in Wisconsin, which sends $16 billion out of state annually to buy coal, gas and other fossil fuels.

"Creating clean-energy jobs has many added advantages, in addition to adding jobs in a major growth sector in the world economy," says Barca, who is from Kenosha.

Wisconsin's solar power industry also got into the act last week, urging support for that developing technology.

"Solar energy is a bright spot for Wisconsin's economy," says Rex Gillespie, president of the recently formed Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association. "It's estimated that we have about 6,000 solar jobs in the state, one of the highest numbers in the country."

Gillespie is a vice president at Caleffi North America, a Milwaukee company that produces solar water heaters and other solar products. He notes that Wisconsin, despite its cold winter weather, has plenty of solar energy available.

"We get more sunlight in Wisconsin than Germany, which is the world's leader in solar energy," he says.

On the wind front, the Illinois Wind Energy Association recently issued a statement urging Wisconsin wind energy companies to "escape to Illinois" - a twist on Walker's call for Illinois companies to move across the state line to avoid a recent tax increase.

Walker's proposal would require wind turbines be 1,800 feet from the nearest property line, a distance that energy advocates say would effectively ban any new wind farms in the state.

"Walker's bill will immediately kill 11 proposed wind projects in Wisconsin and hundreds of jobs, while Illinois enjoys $3 billion in economic activity from wind," says Keith Reopelle, senior policy director at Clean Wisconsin.

Reopelle says Wisconsin is already falling behind other states in wind power and isn't among the nation's top 10 wind states. Developers in Illinois installed 498 megawatts of wind power in 2010 and the state now has over 2,000 MW of capacity. By comparison, Wisconsin added 20 MW of wind power last year and has less than 500 MW in total capacity.

Observers at the Statehouse are still trying to determine why Walker wants to make things more difficult for the wind power industry, given the promise of new jobs and an estimated $1.8 billion worth of projects already in the works.

Clean-energy advocates are pointing fingers at the state's real estate interests, which maintain that wind turbines significantly decrease property values. In addition, if farmers are able to collect rent by leasing their property for wind projects, they are less inclined to sell their land for a new subdivision.

Wisconsin Realtors Association lobbyist Tom Larson told Midwest Energy News that his group was "definitely" the driving force in getting Walker to call for changes in the wind siting rules.

Rules drafted by the state Public Service Commission take effect in March and create uniform standards statewide, including a required setback of 1,250 feet from homes. The Walker proposal, which has not yet been introduced and does not yet have a legislative sponsor, calls for a 1,800-foot setback from the property line - a much more stringent requirement.

Campaign contributions may also have played a role. Records compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign show Walker received $750,833 from the construction industry and $427,629 from Realtors through Oct. 18, 2010.

"The two special interests who like the anti-windmill bill gave him nearly $1.2 million during his run for governor," notes WDC research director Mike Buelow.

The oil, coal and gas industry contributed another $127,693 to Walker, according to the WDC.

Ironically, the Manitowoc company singled out by President Obama - Orion Energy Systems - has had struggles of its own despite millions in government grants and subsidies.

The publicly traded firm lost $4.2 million in 2010 after making $4.3 million from 2007 to 2009. As a result, shares of Orion stock (NYSE: OESX) have fallen to $4.24. It had closed as high as $18.82 at the end of 2007.

The company has drawn support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration designed to give a leg up to renewable energy companies.

Wisconsin has also given its share trying to help Orion to succeed, according to a report from the MacIver Institute for Public Policy, a Wisconsin-based think tank that promotes free markets and limited government.

Since 2005, the state has given the company $350,000 in community development zone tax credits, $506,000 in economic development funds, and $420,000 from the Wisconsin Energy Independence Fund. The company also received another $260,000 in stimulus funds.

But in its latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Orion warns that a reduction or loss of government support could prove economically fatal.

"We may continue to incur further net losses and there can be no assurance that we will be able to increase our revenue, expand our customer base or be profitable," Orion told the SEC.

And with government at all levels vowing to cut spending, companies like Orion may find the going only gets tougher. n