Subscribe for 33¢ / day
Michael Vickerman

Michael Vickerman

A milestone in distributed generation was reached Oct. 15 when Gundersen Health System, a health care provider headquartered in La Crosse, produced more energy that day — heat, cooling and electricity — than was used throughout its facilities. In doing so, Gundersen became the first health care network in the nation to achieve this level of energy self-sufficiency, a goal it set for itself back in 2008.

Reaching its audacious energy goal took six years, $30 million of its own capital, and $11 million in federal and state grants. Gundersen proceeded along several parallel paths: conservation and efficiency measures on new and existing buildings, ground-based heating and cooling, and a constellation of clean energy-producing facilities scattered across southwest Wisconsin. What makes this achievement even more impressive is that Gundersen built two new clinics during this time and expanded its square footage by 25 percent.

But while Gundersen now produces as much electricity as it consumes, it hasn’t disconnected any of its facilities from the electric grid. That’s because its generation sources are designed to supply energy to the grid, not to the buildings themselves. Thus, its definition of energy independence presupposes reliance on utility-supplied electricity, wherever it is generated. Perhaps 100 percent net zero energy is a better way to characterize Gundersen’s remarkable accomplishment.

It turns out that La Crosse is also the launching point for a proposed new transmission line that would, if approved, connect south-central Wisconsin directly to wind energy-rich areas in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Called Badger Coulee, the new line would help complete a regional backbone for the Upper Midwest and alleviate pockets of congestion that limit the expansion of wind power, which is now the least expensive electricity generation option in the region.

The rapid growth of wind generation to our west may surprise Wisconsin citizens. Wind power now accounts for nearly 30 percent of the electricity produced in Iowa. Not far behind is Minnesota, where wind turbines produce 20 percent of the Gopher State’s supply of electricity. Regionwide, wind contributes between 6 and 7 percent to the electricity market. But it will be a challenge to accommodate more high-value wind projects beyond those currently under construction without new high-voltage lines to move the power around.

Wind power’s emergence can be traced to a combination of attributes that no other regionally available fossil fuel or renewable energy resource can provide. Unlike coal, it does not release carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere, requiring environmental upgrades that drive electric rates higher. Unlike natural gas, wind does not have a historically volatile fuel cost, which enables utilities to lock in a low-cost energy source over its entire operating life. And, unlike solar and biogas, wind energy can be inexpensively produced in bulk, and transported around a region as extensive as the Upper Midwest.

To a state like Wisconsin, where wind power clocks in at only 2 percent of total electric generation, that last point is particularly telling. Electric bills here have been rising faster than the regional average for many reasons, not least of which is the state’s limited use of wind energy. With the Badger Coulee line in place, there will be more wind power to tap into, helping utilities here stem the widening price gap between electricity sold in Wisconsin versus electricity sold in Iowa and Minnesota.

This is not an academic consideration. Madison Gas & Electric residential customers pay on average more for their electricity than their counterparts in Des Moines and St. Paul. Ratepayers in those two cities are already benefiting from their utilities’ considerable investments in wind power. These savings could start flowing to MGE customers with a more robust transmission network.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

Given the lack of policy support for further renewable energy development in Wisconsin, reducing electric bills in Madison and other coal-heavy locations will require an expansion of wind-power generation regionwide, which Badger Coulee is specifically designed to accommodate. Fortunately, for Wisconsin customers, Badger Coulee qualifies as a “multivalue project,” because it advances the twin aims of strengthened reliability and increased access to low-cost wind. As such, the cost of its construction is spread broadly across the Upper Midwest transmission system, even though it is located entirely within one state. Indeed, fully 85 percent of Badger Coulee’s estimated price tag ($540-$580 million) will be picked up by customers outside of Wisconsin.

Regardless of Wisconsin’s renewable energy policy climate, regional supplies of clean energy will lock in the emissions reductions that will arise with anticipated closures of nearby coal-fired power plants. Several older generating stations along the Mississippi River, most notably Alliant Energy’s 50-year-old Nelson Dewey plant in Cassville and Dairyland Power’s 55-year-old units in Alma, will cease operations next year.

Some of the replacement electricity will come from local sources such as Gundersen’s wind generators at Cashton and its two biodigesters in Dane County, Western Technical College’s hydro plant on the La Crosse River, and Vernon Electric Cooperative’s and Ho-Chunk Nation’s community solar projects in Westby and Black River Falls, respectively. These projects perform double duty: They produce clean electricity for their hosts while strengthening the local utility systems serving these generators.

As impressive as southwest Wisconsin’s commitment to distributed generation has been, these projects cannot, by themselves, replace utility-owned power plants that drop off the grid. Fortunately, the regional system operator planned for this transition to cleaner energy sources, and, if Badger Coulee is approved, Wisconsin will more effectively capture the economic benefits from wind-power development in the Midwest. From RENEW's perspective, both regional transmission upgrades and local clean energy initiatives can — and should — proceed hand in hand.

Michael Vickerman is program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin, a statewide renewable energy advocacy organization.