Wisconsin could cost-effectively eliminate greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades while growing the economy, adding thousands of jobs, lowering fuel costs and saving lives, according to a pair of new reports.
Commissioned by Clean Wisconsin and Renew Wisconsin, a first-of-its-kind study by the nonprofit consulting firm Evolved Energy Research found that it is possible to replace virtually all fossil fuels with clean energy sources using mostly existing technologies and without sacrificing reliability.
“A zero-carbon future by 2050 is totally feasible,” said Andrew Kell, policy analyst for Renew Wisconsin.
Scientists say the world needs to stop burning fossil fuels by 2050 in order to slow climate change and limit the toll on human lives and property. Wisconsin can’t solve the climate crisis alone, but according to the study replacing fossil fuels would save money, improve health and save hundreds of lives each year by improving air quality.
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While it would require aggressive actions at nearly every level, the study found the fuel savings from an economy-wide shift would essentially offset the roughly $100 billion in upfront costs. But after factoring in up to $4.4 billion in avoided healthcare costs, such a shift would actually save money, according to the report released Tuesday.
Making the switch would grow the state’s economy by about 3%, adding some 68,000 jobs, about half of them in electricity supply, construction and manufacturing, according to a companion study by Cambridge Econometrics.
“This demonstrates that there is a pathway for Wisconsin getting to a clean energy future and that basically everyone stands to gain,” said Chelsea Chandler, climate, energy and air program director for Clean Wisconsin. “This is basically a cleaner future … that has a lot of economic benefits.”
According to the study, eliminating carbon emissions associated with electricity, transportation, industry and heating would cost only marginally more than Gov. Tony Evers’ goal of a clean electric grid but provide far more benefits and cut four times as much heat-trapping gas.
By contrast, doing nothing would result in higher energy and health costs, according to the studies.
“We don’t think about the ways we’re paying now,” Chandler said. “We’ve just kind of become accustomed to the fact that we have more people dying and getting sick, spending time in the hospital or missing work days. And that’s just kind of business as usual.”
Despite the benefits, getting there won’t be easy.
The study acknowledges that every scenario would require the power sector to grow at a rate “that will likely be challenging to implement” and will require dozens of new wind and solar facilities as well as power lines to connect them, all of which require lengthy permitting processes and face increasingly fierce public opposition.
“It’s ambitious,” Chandler said. “We’re going to have to work hard, but it’s manageable.”
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Wind, sun and storage
The study modeled six clean energy scenarios against a “business as usual” baseline, including 100% clean electricity; economy-wide decarbonization; faster and slower timelines and a clean grid without additional interstate transmission lines.
The underlying prerequisite was keeping the lights on 24 hours a day year round.
Every scenario assumed coal generation would end by 2035, in line with plans announced by the state’s largest investor-owned utilities, which operate five of the state’s six remaining coal-fired power plants. Each assumed the state’s only remaining nuclear power plant, Point Beach, would be licensed to operate through mid-century.
In the baseline scenario, utilities continue adding wind and solar, but natural gas remains the dominant source of electricity.
Alternatively, Wisconsin could clean up the electrical grid by adding massive amounts of solar and wind energy along with electricity storage, clean hydrogen production and other technologies while keeping some gas plants that would burn renewable gas and operate solely as backup generators.
That beefed-up grid would provide more than twice as much electricity for things currently powered with fossil fuels.
The economy-wide transition envisions a rapid deployment of electric passenger vehicles along with heat pumps and other electric appliances to replace fossil fuel use in buildings. Heavy-duty and long-haul transportation will be powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cells, while factories will switch to electric boilers.
The study assumes Wisconsin would need to sequester some carbon to offset unavoidable fossil fuel use but does not rely on carbon capture as a primary tool.
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To completely clean up the grid, the study estimated, would require about 60 times more solar panels than are currently in use, plus nearly 30 times more wind generation, though some of that could be built in other states.
That’s the equivalent of building more than three solar farms per year like the controversial 2,400-acre Koshkonong Solar Energy Center near Cambridge, which is currently facing a court challenge and at least one wind farm per year on par with a controversial 600-megawatt wind farm under development in Iowa and Lafayette counties.
It would also require at least half a dozen more transmission lines like the $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line under construction between Dubuque and Middleton that is the subject of multiple state and federal lawsuits.
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Without those added transmission lines, the state would need to add 36% more wind, solar and storage capacity, along with in-state power lines to connect them, which would increase total costs by about $1 billion a year by 2050.
“It’s ambitious and it’s aggressive … but it’s not out there,” Chandler said. “We just need the political will.”
This story will be updated.
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