Summer 2021 Director’s Note

Stories of our power outages from extreme weather on our vulnerable energy infrastructure and their impacts on Wisconsinites were captured by local news media August 8-12, 2021:

– Storms Leave Thousands Of Customers Without Power In Southeastern Wisconsin [and Fox Valley areas] – The severe thunderstorms knocked down trees and power lines and left more than 150,000 utility customers without power. wpr;
– Weekend Storms Set Records For Severe Weather In Western, Southern Wisconsin: Boscobel Hit With Strongest Tornado County Has Seen Since 1985, La Crosse Breaks 137-Year-Old Rainfall Record wpr;
– In Milwaukee: Thousands of customers without power for 3 nights. …Roxanne Ramirez-Fonseca said her power was restored Thursday afternoon, but she had already lost all her food in the refrigerator. “I had just bought $200 of groceries, …”wisn;
– At the peak, We Energies said 225,000 customers lost power because of Tuesday’s storms. “We are literally fighting a battle, a war on the destruction,” We Energies President Tom Metcalfe said. A massive fallen tree took down a power line Tuesday night on Marty Ellery’s dead-end Milwaukee street. “Anyone who needs medical attention past the tree, or fire or anything, it’s a hazard. They can’t get to it, …,” said Tommy Lloyd, who is without power. …who has special medical needs that require electricity and cooling. wisn
– Waukesha County: No power meant no water for thousands of people who have wells. It also meant no sump pumps. wisn

How do we change our critical outdated energy infrastructure so that people can rely on its services to keep their medicine cold, water and sump pumps pumping, food edible, and phones and computers charged even in the face of more frequent severe weather events? The major changes underway to generate our electricity and transportation power from clean renewable energy locally with battery storage and an interactive smart grid, of moving to using zero carbon technologies to electrify our buildings and greatly improve their efficiency and that of our heating and cooling equipment, and appliances and transportation, (and burying power lines) get both at keeping power on and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels that are the main cause of our warming planet and severe, frequent weather events.

Avoiding even more catastrophic impacts as a result of climate change requires deep and rapid greenhouse gas emissions reductions – getting to net-zero before 2050, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) newest report on the physical science basis affirms. Multiple scientific studies show that we can achieve a reliable 80% clean electricity grid by 2030 with existing technology that is affordable to electric customers. For example, We Energies expects to save customers $1 billion over the next 20 years through their shift to renewable energy to meet their zero net carbon goal by 2050.  

“The studies agree on the vast economic gains of ambitious clean energy policies including 500,000 to 1 million net new jobs and hundreds of billions up to trillions of dollars in new clean energy investment, while avoiding $1-3 trillion in health and environmental costs through 2050″. 

The summer of 2021 has been full of movement to advance the clean energy economy. Many of the new federal bills, programs, and budget proposals from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, to the electrical vehicle executive order, to the advanced water heating initiative are designed on a scale to propel the US more than halfway to a clean energy economy in a decade.

In Wisconsin we’re seeing substantial growth in the size and efficiency of utility-scale solar farms at 150 to 300 MW, given an 82 percent cost decline in the cost of utility-scale solar PV electricity from 2010 to 2019.  The most recent projects include battery storage. Recognizing the need for energy security, energy reliability, and rapid recovery when disasters strike the grid, the PSC’s Office of Energy Innovation put out a Request for Proposals the end of June for a pilot grant program to fund feasibility studies for local distributed critical infrastructure microgrids and community resilience centers that support equitable access to the benefits of clean energy. They received 17 proposals for more than the available funding (awards determined in September).

Two Wisconsin legislators announced a bipartisan bill on community solar crafted to spur market competition to expand access to solar energy and bill savings to all Wisconsin customers. To get to a clean, reliable electricity grid will take clean energy generation at all scales- utility scale projects, and distributed generation through community solar, individual projects at houses, businesses, nonprofits, and government buildings and land, and at neighborhood, district, and campus levels.

It will take a transition to clean energy transportation. The clean transportation sector was Wisconsin’s fastest growing job area in 2020 with almost 3,500 jobs in hybrid and electric vehicles. That might grow if Fisker and Foxconn locate an EV plant in Wisconsin. And it will take energy efficiency gains through advanced efficient electric technology in grid-interactive effective buildings, heat pump water heaters and heating and cooling equipment, geothermal heat pumps, advanced lighting, and smart technologies and controls. This is Wisconsin’s strongest sector with 80 percent of all clean energy jobs or 56,000 jobs in energy efficiency.

Finally, getting to a clean energy grid will take each of us at home and at work making informed decisions to go electric when the opportunity arises to replace or upgrade home appliances and systems, build new or remodel, buy or lease a car, and even hire and buy lawnmowing and leaf blowing equipment and services. The options are out there and come with financial incentives often. The trades and stores need customers to ask about and pursue high efficiency, electric, and solar with battery storage options. They say they are willing to go green if they are asked, if there’s consumer demand; but, absent that, they will continue to do what they’re used to. Keep the big picture in mind: the first costs might be higher, but savings in energy will return payback in a few years; and, the benefits to your family’s and workers’ health and to the environment, coupled with reduced risks from power outages in severe weather events will keep giving back.  

Sherrie Gruder