It's not easy going green

2011-11-09T08:30:00Z 2011-11-15T17:30:45Z It's not easy going greenTODD FINKELMEYER | The Capital Times |

The earth's population hit the 7 billion mark last week.

Perhaps just as eye opening is the fact that the planet is adding more than 200,000 people to that total every 24 hours. That's nearly another Madison each day.

"We need to start thinking proactively about energy use and other sustainability issues, or we'll be forced to face the consequences of having to be reactive," says Craig Benson, who this summer was named UW-Madison's first director for sustainability research and education. "Resources are no longer plentiful, so it behooves us to think much more strategically about our energy resources."

I remember my fourth-grade teacher making similar statements after the 1979 oil crisis. Several book reports on wind and solar energy followed in the next couple of years. It wasn't difficult finding material on this issue because it was a mainstream topic of interest. And yet, here we are more than three decades later, and renewable energy still is struggling to gain serious traction.

If we can find ways to expand the use of renewable energies such as solar and wind, we'll not only tap into supplies that are basically limitless but simultaneously curb the production of pollutants and greenhouse gases that contribute to respiratory ailments and, most believe, global warming. The U.S. Department of Energy recently calculated the global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record last year and that 2010 levels of greenhouse gases are now higher than the worst-case scenario predicted by climate experts only four years ago.

But even if saving the planet isn't your thing, what red-blooded American could be in favor of continuing to send roughly $1 billion per day in U.S. currency to foreign oil producers — especially when that transfer of wealth often goes to nations we're not exactly buddy-buddy with?

It's easy to understand the virtues of America weaning itself from fossil fuels. And yet, backers of the status quo jumped all over the Obama administration after the California solar array manufacturer Solyndra filed for bankruptcy Sept. 6. Solyndra had received a $527 million federal loan as part of the 2009 stimulus package, which devoted some $80 billion to clean energy projects. As Time magazine pointed out, Solyndra's loan equaled "$1.68 for every man, woman and child in America."

In one gotcha moment, Obama's green-energy agenda was set back on its heels, even though the damage caused by this "scandal" paled in comparison to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill disaster that killed 11, released about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and caused extensive damage to fishing and tourism industries and wildlife habitats in the region.

"The Solyndra case is an important lesson for our energy policymakers," Barry Russell, the president of Independent Petroleum Association of America, asserted in an opinion piece for the online version of the National Journal. "It serves to highlight the industries that create real, meaningful jobs for Americans. The American oil and natural gas industry is the flagship industry that not only provides these jobs, but also supplies the energy that grows our economy and bolsters our energy security."

It's been a tough year for clean energy efforts in Wisconsin as well.

Backers of wind energy argue that millions of dollars worth of economic development and hundreds of jobs are in jeopardy since Gov. Scott Walker introduced a bill earlier this year that dramatically increases how far wind turbines must be set back from the nearest property lines and residences — a move critics argue is killing the prospects of any major new wind projects coming to this state.

Meanwhile, the Republican-led Legislature rolled back funding increases for the state's Focus on Energy program. The program — which is funded by a charge on the electric bill of all Wisconsin consumers and provides businesses, schools, local governments and members of the public with incentives for both energy efficiency and renewable energy projects — had been slated to have its budget more than double, to $256 million, by 2014.

It's hardly a shock then, to learn that across the U.S., petroleum, natural gas and coal still account for 83 percent of this country's energy consumption. Nuclear power accounts for another 9 percent, with all forms of renewables — such as hydroelectric, wood, agricultural byproducts, biofuels, wind, geothermal and solar — accounting for just 8 percent.

"If everyone in the world had a comparable lifestyle to what we have, it would take about six Earths to support that," says Benson. "It's important to get out ahead on these issues, because when you have different groups of people who want resources that are no longer plentiful, and you start to compete for them, history shows us people tend to act poorly."

•    •    •    •

It wasn't all that long ago that the political winds in Wisconsin were much more favorable for pushing progressive, bipartisan renewable energy-related policies and programs.

The state's Focus on Energy program was created with the backing of former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1999 as part of his vision for a state energy strategy heading into the new millennium.

John Marx, then the administrator of the Department of Administration's Division of Energy, noted during the media event that launched the program in 2002 that the "issue of energy conservation and its role in the economic vitality of this state is not a political issue but a commitment shared by all Wisconsin residents."

And really, why wouldn't it be? Wisconsin has to import 100 percent of its oil, natural gas and coal.

In 2006, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and a Republican-led Assembly and Senate came together to pass a renewable energy bill that requires the state's utilities to produce 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar and other means by 2015. Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison nonprofit that promotes clean energy, recalls that Wisconsin Act 141 passed both houses of the Legislature by a combined 131-1 vote.

"That was the most important piece of legislation that emerged from what we call the bipartisan energy policy era," says Vickerman.

In the years to come, leaders from each side of the political aisle would have opportunities to expand renewable energy programs and legislation — but failed to do so.

In 2010, Democrats held the governor's seat and control of both houses of the Legislature, but efforts to push through the so-called Clean Energy Jobs Act faltered. The ambitious proposal to address both energy and environmental concerns mandated that 25 percent of Wisconsin's power come from renewable sources by 2025.

"It was a broad-based look at how Wisconsin could put itself on a path for an energy policy that would make it less reliant on fossil fuels in the future," says Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, who pushed hard for the legislation. "We hoped it would provide us with a little energy security in the future and make us less dependent on these sometimes dramatic fluctuations in the costs of fossil fuels. It just made sense to increase the amount of renewable energy in our portfolio over the next 25 years."

But others argued that constructing renewable energy projects to meet the mandate would increase energy rates and, thus, the cost of doing business in the state. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce organized businesses to oppose the legislation and ran radio ads statewide attacking the bill. Some environmentalists also were upset that aspects of the legislation would loosen restrictions on nuclear energy. And yet, a coalition of the state's major utilities backed the proposal.

"During the process, the partisanship continued to increase," says Miller. "On the Republican side there was more and more talk that clean energy was a hoax that was going to cost consumers a lot more if we went to it and it was a plot by scientists and Democrats and other 'unreliable folks' to increase costs on individuals and manufacturers."

After months of drafting and some 30 hours of public hearings, the bill never was brought to the floor for a vote.

"That sent a signal that it was open season on clean energy in this state," says Vickerman.

And few are expecting the situation to reverse course in the near term.

The Democratic-led Joint Finance Committee in December of 2010 approved hiking utilities' contributions to the Focus on Energy Program — starting at $120 million in 2011 and jumping to $256 million by 2014. That increase was backed by the Public Service Commission after an Energy Center of Wisconsin study indicated the state has plenty of room to increase its energy efficiency. The PSC, however, estimated the move would increase energy rates by 4.3 percent.

Some have long argued it isn't fair to make ratepayers who ultimately fund the program pay more for energy just so a chosen few can receive breaks on energy savings or renewable energy projects. So after the balance of power in the state flipped early this year, the Republican-led JFC this spring decided to return Focus funding to its previous level of about $100 million per year.

Also earlier this year, the PSC selected Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure Inc., a subsidiary of the Louisiana-based Shaw Group, to manage the Focus program. The program had been run by the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corp., a nonprofit based in Madison.

In an effort to deal with budget concerns and to think strategically about how best to move forward, the PSC on July 1 suspended Focus incentives for renewable energy projects by local governments and businesses. The number of these projects during the first half of 2011 was spiking and the pool of money set aside to fund them was running out. The Public Service Commission, which generally favors energy conservation projects over those that install renewable energy because they offer a more immediate bang for the buck, still is trying to finalize plans to determine which renewable projects in the future get funded through Focus. As a result, it's likely that program won't be back in place until April.

The suspension of Focus incentives doesn't currently affect those tied to residential undertakings, such as solar installations on homes. Those locally who work in the solar installation industry indicate they have been trying for weeks to get straight answers from Focus on Energy representatives or the PSC about whether these incentives for residents will be available at the start of 2012 — or if they'll also be put off until later in the year like the business incentives.

Several said the lack of communication from Focus on Energy is frustrating.

"Since the Shaw Group took over, Focus has become like this eight-headed monster where you call eight different people and never get any clear answers," says Burke O'Neal, who started Full Spectrum Solar — a Madison-based solar panel installation company — with his brother in 2002 and now employs 17 workers. "From my perspective, interacting with Focus is much different this year than in previous years. Usually as the end of the year approaches, we get an idea of what might be in store incentive-wise for the following year. Uncertainty is not good for business."

Attempts to speak with a Focus on Energy representative were not successful, but Matthew Pagel, a spokesman with the PSC, said "it's my understanding the renewable program for residential will continue in January. There might be some tweaks but it will continue."

•    •    •    •

The Legislature this year has also decided that hydroelectric power secured from out of state can now count toward the 10 percent of Wisconsin's energy that's supposed to come from renewable sources by 2015, while new wind turbine siting rules that were slated to go into effect in March remain suspended.

The original siting rules — which took more than a year to hammer out and came about through a bipartisan agreement between a range of stakeholders — called for wind turbines to be set back from the nearest property line by 1.1 times the height of the turbine. The regulations developed by the Public Service Commission and set to take effect last March also required turbines be no closer than 1,250 feet from the nearest residence. But Walker, who received significant backing from wind farm foes in 2010, introduced a bill in January to push the setback from the property line to 1,800 feet — or more than a third of a mile.

"I will fight government policies that further infringe on the rights of property owners," Walker said in a campaign letter last summer that was released to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel under the state's open records law. "Wind turbines have proved to be an expensive, inefficient source of electricity and thus any further construction of turbines simply is not a policy goal or objective that should be pursued further."

Although Walker's legislation didn't go anywhere, the Legislature decided to suspend the PSC's siting rules. The commission is working with stakeholders in an attempt to work out a compromise solution, but none seems imminent. If no agreement can be hashed out, the original rules are slated to go into effect in March 2012. However, legislative action could be brought forward to kill the original rules and make everyone go back to the drawing board.

Although We Energies' $367 million Glacier Hills Wind Park project in Columbia County — which supplied jobs for about 175 workers on a typical day this past year — still is set to go online by the end of 2011, the siting fiasco ensures no other major wind projects are in the pipeline in Wisconsin.

"When these rules were suspended, Wisconsin basically rolled up the welcome mat to wind projects," says RENEW Wisconsin's Vickerman. "It really sent a shiver down the spine of wind developers. They basically said the environment here is too much like a minefield and they took off."

•    •    •    •

Even if most everyone was onboard with making renewable energies a more significant part of this country's energy portfolio, it's not like one can make it all happen overnight.

"Converting to more renewable energies is not an easy process," says Giri Venkataramanan, a UW-Madison professor of electrical and computer engineering who researches electric power converters.

For starters, the well-heeled oil, natural gas and coal industries wield plenty of influence on the national stage. Yet even if these factors weren't part of the equation, Venkataramanan notes that much of the infrastructure that's in place for electricity transmission alone has been around for 100 years.

"So if we're talking about pushing green opportunities and green industries, we'll need to retool everything," says Venkataramanan. "Supply chains will have to be re-established. Expertise will need to be retooled. People will lose old jobs and new ones will have to be created. Workers will have to be retrained."

But until the new jobs are readily available, it makes little sense to retrain workers.

The village of Plain, located about 40 miles northwest of Madison, recently opened the doors to its $2.8 million Green Technology, Training and Enterprise Center, which was largely funded through grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

The so-called Green TTEC — which features solar panels, geothermal wells to heat and cool the facility, and other systems to take advantage of natural ventilation and daylight to offset other lighting and heating requirements — was built mainly to train workers for jobs related to green technologies, says Shawn Murphy, the facility's director. Madison Area Technical College signed a four-year lease to start holding classes in the building starting in January.

Plain is home to three good-sized construction companies that have been forced to lay off people as the recession continues, notes Murphy. "So there's a large, fairly skilled workforce that's idle and we're hoping to be able to retrain people," he says. "Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of new green jobs out there due to the recession. A lot of people are trying to figure out how to pay their mortgage, much less trying to invest in a new solar system for their home."

John Alt, director of economic and workforce development for MATC's northern region, says the college isn't likely to offer any programs at the Green TTEC solely geared, for example, toward installing solar panels or maintaining wind turbines.

"I think when we start out we'll mostly offer fairly conventional computer classes, maybe business classes, and try to find what the market is in that area," says Alt. "When you talk about green technologies, we're usually not looking at new fields of study but at add-ons or enhancements to current programs, like advanced manufacturing, that make a person more marketable. Or maybe if you're an auto mechanic we'll teach you how to work on a hybrid or electric car."

•    •    •    •

Both Alt and Murphy say it'll be important to remain nimble and to adjust the offerings at the Green TTEC to best help those in the area find employment.

"So this facility isn't exclusively designed to train those for jobs in green tech," says Murphy. "If we find a huge demand for those with more cheesemaking skills, we'll incorporate that."

At UW-Madison, Benson is in the process of developing a campus-wide effort to align the university's teaching and research on sustainability. Among a range of efforts, he plans to have in place by next fall a sustainability certificate program students of all majors can pursue.

"I want to be able to teach them about the science of sustainability," says Benson, who came to the university in 1990 as an expert on environmental containment systems, waste management and sustainable engineering. "What does it take to really be sustainable, and how do we address these problems and measure whether or not potential solutions are working in a scientific way? Ideally, every student that comes out of here will be educated to think about some of these issues in a broader way. And if we do that, over time we can change how people think about these issues."

•    •    •    •

If Wisconsin's political leadership is indeed "focused like a laser" on "jobs, jobs, jobs" and making the state "open for business," those with ties to the renewable energy sector argue more attention should be paid to their arena.

According to a report from the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Wisconsin is home to more than 300 companies that serve the solar and wind energy markets in some way — from manufacturing and systems design to site planning, engineering, construction and installation. The document indicates these sectors employ about 6,000 workers, with another 6,000 whose jobs are at least 50 percent tied to the renewable energy sector.

And according to the 2010 National Solar Job Census Report, Wisconsin is ranked fifth nationally for solar job employment — trailing only California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Michigan. Nationally, that same report indicates the industry added 6,735 workers between August 2010 and August 2011. While that's not a big number, it represents a 6.8 percent growth rate. Jobs in the overall economy grew by 0.7 percent during that same period.

"If you look at what Wisconsin has managed to do in renewable energy up until this year, it's pretty decent relative to the other 49 states," says Vickerman. "What Wisconsin has done compared to many European countries, especially Germany, is at best trivial."

Twenty percent of the energy consumed in Germany, for example, already comes from renewable power — hitting that threshold eight years ahead of when it promised the European Union it would meet that mark.

Over the past four decades, Germany is credited with retooling its policies unlike any other nation to promote growth that's more sustainable. According to an analysis of Germany's success in The Solutions Journal, there is no "silver bullet" to find success and "policies have to be coordinated and integrated across sectors and levels of government to achieve maximum effectiveness." The report also notes the importance of bipartisanship and of fostering citizen participation and communicating policies effectively.

That report adds that while Germans are generally committed to a more sustainable lifestyle, "by contrast, the United States lags behind, where political debates over climate-change-related policy actions are hindering opportunities and leadership in this arena. As long as the public perceives a trade-off between environmental regulation and industrial competitiveness, it will be extremely difficult for the United States to fundamentally turn toward a low-carbon economy."

Meanwhile, at the same time the Obama administration is being ripped for the loan to Solyndra, China extended about $30 billion in credit to its solar industry in 2010 — roughly 20 times the commitment made by the United States.

While this investment by China has led to the downfall of several top U.S. solar manufacturers, the flood of relatively inexpensive solar equipment into world markets has meant a spike in work for solar panel installers in this country. According to a recent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report, solar photovoltaic system prices fell by 17 percent in 2010.

"Solar is obviously a viable business globally," writes Mike Koshmrl, an associate editor for Solar Today. "Western governments and businesses need to decide if they're willing to be sellers as well as buyers of this technology. Do Americans want the manufacturing jobs, or just commissions on the sale of goods made elsewhere? What kind of economy do we want?"

The truth is, as the economy struggles to regain solid footing, fossil fuel prices have remained relatively low. Besides, there's a surge of crude oil production in North Dakota, while hydraulic fracking — which involves cracking open rock seams with pressurized fluids — has made vast quantities of natural gas available for extraction. And Canada and the U.S. hope to build a 1,700-mile pipeline starting in the Canadian oil sands of Alberta to carry 700,000 barrels of crude per day to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.

"Personally, this just doesn't make sense — it's like building a huge dinosaur," Venkataramanan says of the Keystone KL oil pipeline, which Obama is expected to approve in the next few months. "The traditional energy industries just keep chugging along while new technologies can't get off the ground. People are talking about the bad risk associated with the Solyndra loan. Well, why aren't people asking about the risks involved with building this pipeline and all the dollars and energy it'll take to construct this thing?"

Venkataramanan nonetheless remains hopeful and upbeat, adding he believes pushing for more renewable energy solutions is a battle worth fighting.

"If people think these are good ideas, we need to keep drumming up support and pushing forward," he says. "I think the problem is in the hands of the people. The government will do what the people want, eventually. But there still is a huge inertia that has to be overcome."

Adds Benson: "Academics can pontificate in papers about the need to find more renewable energy sources and better ways of doing things all they want, but until there is a real groundswell from the public, there won't be a significant push for change. Maybe when gas reaches $4.50 per gallon or people feel some economic pain in other ways we'll reach that pressure point. It would be nice if we could get out ahead of some of these issues and start thinking about them in proactive ways right now."

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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