|1/30/2014 5:01:00 PM|
We all have a role in Wisconsin energy creation
by Denise Thornton
"We all have a role to play in how Wisconsin creates and uses energy," Sherrie Gruder, UW-Extension Sustainable Design Specialist, told an audience who braved another intensely cold night to attend the second of a four-part series on Wisconsin's future weather and its implications. "How we use energy will play a crucial role in Wisconsin's economy, environment and public health."
"We are moving toward a low-carbon economy based on new energy," she said. "It may not always feel like it, but it is steadily happening all around us. New energy will create jobs and decrease the negative impact that coal-generated power has on our land, water and our health. Burning coal produces a lot of sulfur dioxide, which causes respiratory diseases like asthma. In addition, every lake in Wisconsin has mercury pollution from these coal plants. That's why we have health advisories that limit the number of fish we should eat - especially pregnant women."
Wisconsin spends about $19 billion each year on energy, and almost $13 billion of that total leaves the state because we have to buy our power elsewhere. According to Gruder, what's needed is a new energy economy in which many people and communities become "prosumers" - not just consuming energy, but producing energy using the sun, wind and biomass.
Gruder said climate change is a major reason why Wisconsin should move toward alternatives to fossil fuels. "For quite a while, we were one of the only countries in the world where the majority of people didn't believe in climate change," she said, "but public opinion polls are showing that most Americans now understand it is a very important issue."
The second driver she noted is increased world-wide energy consumption. As India and China continue to use more energy, the cost of fossil fuel will rise, making alternatives to fossil fuel more attractive.
"Wind farms are a great alternative energy source," she said. In 2012 wind provided nearly half of Wisconsin's alternative energy production. "Wind is the lowest cost energy resource we have. Wind power right now costs 2.5 cents a kilowatt hour. Compare that to coal at 11-14 cents."
Gruder observed that our energy costs in Wisconsin are high compared to other Midwestern states because of our dependence on importing expensive fossil fuels. "Wind lowers electric rates," she said. "Iowa gets 24 percent of its electricity from wind power. We get two percent."
Expensive power hurts Wisconsin's ability to attract business, Gruder said, but some Wisconsin businesses and communities are leading the way to energy independence. Gundersen Lutheran Health System in La Crosse, one of the nation's largest multi-specialty group medical practices, will become independent of fossil fuels this year. They are using a combination of energy efficiency measures, solar and wind power and capturing the methane gas produced by local breweries, landfills and even cow manure.
"Wisconsin is a leader in biodigesters," Gruder said. A biodigester uses sources such as wood, manure, switch grass and cheese whey to generate methane gas. Dane county parks and public works trucks all run on biofuel produced in the county's landfills. Generators operating on methane from the landfill produced more than 31 million kilowatt-hours in 2012. That's enough electricity to power about 4,800 homes.
Monona has negotiated a contract for a third-party to install and own many solar collectors on roofs throughout the city to reduce both the community's energy use and pollution. Communities can only do this if their utility provider agrees, Gruder explained. The state is considering legislation, already supported by Iowa County, called Clean Energy Choice that would allow third-party ownership of renewable energy systems on homes and businesses throughout the state.
When an audience member asked if the use of solar power by some residents increases the power bills of those who use traditional power, Gruder referred to a study by an energy think tank shows that adding alternative power generation to traditional sources does not cost more. Instead of holding an energy monopoly, utility companies will remain profitable as service providers.
"The utility industry gave us stable power. Everybody got energy. The current model for utilities is to create energy, sell energy and bring profit to the shareholders. But the world is changing, and in the future we need communities, businesses and individuals to become prosumers," Gruder said.
Some communities are tracking how energy-efficient their buildings are. This benchmarking allows owners to see how their buildings compare in energy and water usage with local and national averages. "If you don't measure it, you don't know what you have," said Gruder. "You wouldn't buy a car without knowing what mileage you'll get. Buildings are much more expensive and they last longer too."
Iowa County has benchmarked the efficiency of all county-owned buildings. "It really illuminated which buildings needed work," said Paul Ohlrogge, Iowa County UW-Extension Community Resource Development Agent. "We replaced 54-year-old boilers with more efficient ones at Bloomfield and insulated the county highway garage. I understand these improvements will be paid back in energy savings in less than 10 years."
Gruder emphasized that individuals, as well as communities and businesses can use energy more efficiently. She advised homeowners to get a home energy audit. "Focus on Energy has information on energy-audit providers in the Dodgeville area," she said. "Focus on Energy can also help you save money with rebates on some energy-efficient home improvements." Find more information at www.focusonenergy.com/residential/efficient-homes-performance-energy-star.
"There is so much we can do at home and at work to move to a low-carbon economy," Gruder concluded. "We can make personal choices to save energy, and we can help get renewables into our homes and communities. We can become prosumers."
This educational series is being sponsored by Iowa County Emergency Management, Iowa County UW-Extension, Grassroots Citizens of Wisconsin, Sustain Iowa County and Driftless Area Land Conservancy.
There will be two more Wednesday presentations in the series: February 12, The Challenge of Understanding Wisconsin Impacts in a Changing Climate - Learning from the Past, Estimating the Future, and also February 26, a movie - Earth, the Operator's Manual. Both presentations are from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Community Room of the Health and Human Services Building, 303 W. Chapel St., Dodgeville.
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