Looking at Wisconsin’s renewable energy future

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin is in the midst of an energy transition, moving away from fossil fuels that harm the environment to renewable sources of energy.

If you take a drive in the countryside these days, you’ll see a glimpse into Wisconsin’s future. Solar farms are popping up everywhere.

On Earth Day, Wisconsin regulators approved Madison based Alliant Energy’s plans to spend nearly $1 billion on new solar plants as part of the Madison based utility’s plans to phase out coal-fired generators.

The Public Service Commission agreed unanimously to authorize Alliant to purchase six solar farms with a combined capacity of 675 megawatts, enough to power about 175,000 typical Wisconsin homes. The sites will be developed as far southwest as Grant County and as far northeast as Sheboygan County.

“The timing is right for this volume of solar to come on to the system,” said Ben Lipari, Director of Resource Development at Alliant Energy. “Solar has seen significant decreases in cost. We’re also seeing significant gains in performance of the solar facilities. So, that combination as well as our ability to diversify where this energy is produced on the grid, we think sets our customers up for reliable, cost effective energy into the future.”

Environmental groups hailed the decision as a critical step toward slowing global climate change.

Projects like these are allowing for the closure of coal-burning power plants. In February, Alliant Energy, the majority owner of the Columbia Energy Center near Portage, announced the power plant will close in 2025.

“The retirement of Columbia for all of us feels like the end of an era,” said Eric Sandvig, Director of Operations. “We’ve been using coal to generate electricity in Wisconsin for about 100 years. Our employees, they’ve spent their lives making sure these plants were safe and reliable and lost cost to operate. Now, we’ll be working with them to find another skill set.”

Alliant says it will work with the 110 employees affected to find jobs within the company or train for new careers. “We realize that these plants going away is going to have an impact on the communities,” Sandvig said. “Alliant Energy is going to be a continuing ongoing partner. Just because these plants are going away, doesn’t mean Alliant is going away.”

The company has told regulators that replacing coal plants like Columbia with up to 1,000 megawatts of solar capacity can avoid up to $6.5 billion in additional costs over the next 35 years.

“The cost profile of energy has changed so dramatically over the last ten years and solar prices have come down so dramatically, customers can see savings but, the challenge is, do we have to pay twice?” said Tom Content, Executive Director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin.

“One of the things we think often gets overlooked is enabling people to save on their own utility bills in a more proactive way. It’s a clean energy, lower carbon future that we’re all moving toward but, the less energy you use at home or in your business, the more you’re saving in terms of your own money and your own carbon footprint.”

Alliant expects to break ground this summer and hopes to have the projects coming online by 2022 or 2023. Tom Content said, “investors want it, the public generally supports it but, the challenge is managing this transition and doing it in a way that doesn’t break the bank on the way to cleaner future.”