On Wisconsin: Midwest Utilities See Big Cheddar in Renewables

August 13, 2018

I’ve posted interviews recently from Michigan Utility executives (see below) who have recently set new goals for decarbonizing in coming decades – huge turnaround in just a few years.
Same thing happening in Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Wisconsin’s two largest public utilities are making bigger stakes in renewable energy and have pledged far deeper cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases than previous predictions.

Madison-based Alliant Energy says it intends to stop burning carbon-intensive coal altogether in its electric power plants by 2050.

Alliant and Milwaukee-based WEC Energy Group recently said they are setting new goals to reduce carbon emissions by 80% from 2005 levels by 2050.

That’s a shift from 2016 pronouncements when the utilities envisioned carbon dioxide reductions of 40% by 2030. (WEC Energy Group, which operates We Energies, says it now expects to reach the 40% goal by about 2023.) 

The moves to renewables are driven by tumbling prices for wind and solar power at the same time power companies in Wisconsin and nationally are using more natural gas as an alternative to coal.

WEC Energy Chairman Gale Klappa told analysts on July 29 that utility-scale solar has increased in efficiency and prices have dropped by nearly 70% in recent years. He called it “an option that also fits well with our summer peak demand curve and with our plan to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”

Here, Dave Harwood of DTE – big Detroit area utility.

More from Milwaukee:

Still, the actions of the companies are an about-face from a decade ago when Alliant was seeking regulatory approval to build a new coal plant in Wisconsin. The state Public Service Commission in 2008 rejected the plan with one commissioner then calling it the “wrong project at the wrong time.”

In 2010 and 2011, after a big battle with environmentalists, WEC Energy opened a pair of coal-fired units in Oak Creek on Lake Michigan, which are among the last of their kind constructed in the United States.

The latest moves by the companies are coming as pressure from regulators is easing.

The administration of President Donald Trump is working to dismantle Obama-era regulations that would limit carbon emissions from power plants. The president also withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.

Also, unlike neighboring states, Wisconsin under Republican Gov. Scott Walker has not raised mandates for renewable power above a requirement of 10% of retail sales.

“This is not being driven by a federal policy because there really isn’t any right now,” said Doug Scott, a vice president of the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit energy research group that has worked with utilities, including WEC Energy, on strategies to cut carbon emissions.

“It’s being driven by their own decisions and the thought that decarbonization is going to happen for a variety or reasons.”

Biggest Michigan utility is Consumer’s Energy. Here one of their forecasters discusses the plan for no new gas in coming decades – reliance on solar, wind, and efficiency.

Crain’s Detroit Business:

DTE’s path toward zero coal is tougher because the Detroit-based power giant currently relies on coal to produce 65 percent of its power. On the other hand, Jackson-based Consumers uses coal for only 32 percent.

Over the next 22 years, Consumers said in its integrated resource plan, filed June 15, that it will replace that 32 percent coal with at least 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy and take other cleaner power steps. It plans to attack the demand side of the equation by ramping up efficiency programs and using data-driven technology to guide incentives, known as “demand response,” for customers to reduce electricity from energy-hogging air conditioners.

Consumers already uses natural gas to power 12 percent of its power plants and said it won’t increase that. Over the past decade, as it has closed coal-fired plants, Consumers has replaced those by purchasing gas plants to generate 1,488 megawatts of power. By 2040, Consumers says gas will fuel about 10 percent by upping other power sources, including solar arrays.

DTE has been approved by the MPSC to build a 1,100-megawatt natural gas plant in East China Township by 2023 to replace three coal-fired plants. Several environmental and renewable energy groups are challenging DTE’s plans, but a reversal seems unlikely.

DTE’s natural gas power generation now is 5 percent of production. Documents show that would grow to 20 percent and possibly even 30 percent by 2030 if the company builds a second $1 billion gas plant.

However, DTE officials say its future fuel mix is unclear until it completes and files its own integrated resource plan, or IRP, by March 29 of next year.

So far, planning documents filed with the state show DTE will add 4,000 megawatts of renewable energy, four times what it currently produces, to increase renewables to 25 percent of generation from 10 percent now.

However, energy experts tell Crain’s they believe DTE could eventually ramp up renewable energy to 40 percent or more of fuel mix, especially if the cost of wind and solar installations continues to drop.

DTE also currently generates 21 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, which Consumers plans to cut to zero by 2030 from 19 percent this year.

Because of increasing renewable and natural gas, the percentage of DTE’s nuclear generation at Fermi 2 in Monroe County is expected to drop to about 10 percent by 2040.

There is an outside chance nuclear could increase. While the company currently has no firm plans to expand it, DTE also in 2015 received a license to build Fermi 3, a 1,560-megawatt plant that would likely cost more than $10 billion. DTE officials have described the Fermi 3 license as a type of “insurance card,” and a decision could be made in the 2020s.

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