Sustainable Energy Development, Wisconsin Style

charter street power plant photo

Charter Street combined heat, cooling, and power plant. Image credit:Badger Herald, Ben Classon photo

At a time of serious State budget deficit, a declining forest products industry, and continued high dependence on fossil-fueled electricity, University of Wisconsin's flagship campus in Madison is proposing to build a combined biomass & natural gas-fired, heating, cooling, and power generation plant. (Boy, that's a mouthful.) There's an important economic development subtext: make it a prototype project to help drive the state's entire economy toward a more sustainable future.

As with the old campus unit (pictured), the new one will provide district heating and and chilled water for cooling. Added twist: surplus electricity will be sold to the grid. Offered a future plate of margarine with coal bits, they want grade AA butter. Why not? There is a political backdrop to this story which other states might well pay attention to as they pursue their own green energy developments. Let's set the stage for that discussion with the dollars and cents issues of the moment.

A local air quality problem led to the upgrade plans. A Sierra Club law suit over compliance seems to have triggered the work. The chosen alternative, a relatively high capital-cost innovation, presents quite a challenge, though, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel details.

A state-funded, $250 million project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison aims to convert a coal-fired power plant on campus to one that primarily burns biomass such as tree trimmings and crops, ideally becoming a model for how the state can reduce its carbon output and its dependence on fossil fuels.

But the massive venture - accounting for nearly one-fifth of the state's capital budget during the 2009-'11 budget period - faces considerable hurdles. Among them:

  • Upfront construction costs will be higher than other alternatives that were considered.

  • No infrastructure exists to process the eclectic mix of fuels the plant would burn.

  • The plant's surplus electricity will be sold into a regional market already awash in excess power.

Fuel delivery.
The Madison campus facility is hundreds miles south of the northern lands which, over the preceding century, supplied the State's economically important forest products industries. The plant will have to use the rail spur to bring in wood chips to keep the carbon footprint low and avoid the local and regional air quality degradations created by a constant stream of trucks headed in and out of Madison. Farms are all around, however.

The politics of sustainable development are especially interesting.
The general tendency is to view the possibilities for an energy-sustainable future only through viewpoints of the the design engineer, the banker and next year's possibly upset taxpayers. For a prototype like this one to be accepted and be replicated at larger scale over coming decades, it has to offer wide-spread benefits and not 'gore the ox' of entrenched interests. This one does pretty well on both counts, prospectively spreading economic benefits all around the state, so as to warrant support by elected officials.

Thankfully, Wisconsin does not have a coal mining industry to lobby against it: Big Coal are political outsiders. A project like this would never fly in Indiana or Ohio or Pennsylvania.

Farmers in the agrarian southern two thirds of the State can see a short-term opportunity to participate in biofuel markets, bringing additional income. That will be corn stover, basically. Optimistically, sun-dried corn stover can be harvested with existing equipment; then collected and sent to Madison via existing storage and rail infrastructure.

Job-desperate communities in the heavily-forested northern third of the State will see a chance to make logging residues a co-product, for which steady demand will be provided. Logging is already fairly automated and adding a debris clean up chipping step could work out if the work process is streamlined.

The reason to do this project first in the southern portion of the State instead of at a clean-air campus in the north woods is that regional air quality is already an impediment to growth in cities which happen to be concentrated in the southeasterly portion of the State. Benefit spreading in other words.

And finally, if the technology is proven to work without significantly adverse environmental impacts on forest and agricultural lands and on water quality, legislators will be more inclined to support a future lowering of a carbon cap.

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Sustainable Energy Development, Wisconsin Style
At a time of serious State budget deficit, a declining forest products industry, and continued high dependence on fossil-fueled electricity,