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 new study.
Commissioned by Clean Wisconsin and Renew Wisconsin, the first-of-its-kind study by the 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 replacing fossil fuels would save money, improve health and save hundreds of lives each year by improving air quality, according to the study.
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While it would require aggressive actions at nearly every level, the study found the fuel savings from an economywide shift would essentially offset its roughly $100 billion in infrastructure costs over the coming decades. Once avoided health care costs are factored in, 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 report 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 — or even delaying drastic action — would result in higher energy and health costs, according to the study.
“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.”
The report demonstrates the opportunities to cost-effectively address carbon emissions from challenging sectors such as transportation, buildings and industry, said Greg Nement, a professor of public policy at UW-Madison and one of the lead authors of a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warning that carbon emissions need to be cut in half by the end of the decade.
Despite the benefits of such a reduction, 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.”
Wind, sun, storage
The study, funded in part with grants from the Energy Foundation and McKnight Foundation, modeled six clean energy scenarios against a “business as usual” baseline, including 100% clean electricity and economywide decarbonization as well as faster and slower timelines for implementing changes.
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 economywide 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 capture and store some carbon to offset unavoidable fossil fuel use but does not rely on carbon sequestration as a primary tool.
To completely clean up the grid, the study estimated, would require a 60-fold increase in the current number of solar panels and 30 times as much wind generation.
That’s the equivalent of building more than three solar farms per year like the 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 dozens more transmission lines like the $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line under construction between Dubuque, Iowa, and Middleton that is the subject of multiple state and federal lawsuits.
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.
Under the 2050 clean-economy scenario, Wisconsin would have about 3.5 times more generation capacity than its current 18,000 megawatts. Wind and solar would account for about 80% of energy, similar to what fossil fuels provide now, with batteries and clean gas providing on-demand power.
Less than 4% of the total capacity would come from rooftop solar, reflecting a 2021 report that found the state could technically support 39,000 megawatts of rooftop solar but market conditions limit the potential to just a fraction of that.
Energy policy analyst Gary Radloff questioned why the study didn’t pay more attention to customer-owned resources and tools to cut demand, which are typically cheaper than plants built by regulated utilities, which typically reap a 10% profit on their investments.
Kell said the growing challenges with infrastructure siting underscore the importance of comprehensive planning and policies that encourage rooftop solar and other investments in the local electric distribution network that can offset the need for some large-scale utility projects.
While technically possible, electrifying buildings will also be difficult, according to a report from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, which outlined some of the challenges, such as upfront costs of equipment and a lack of qualified contractors.
But the Wisconsin study was completed before passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes nearly $370 billion in federal funding to offset the cost of the transition, including consumer tax credits and rebates for things such as solar panels, heat pumps and electric vehicles.
The study also relied on forecasts compiled prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which led to a large jump in gas and oil prices. If fossil fuel prices remain high, Kell said, that would increase the savings associated with a carbon-free economy.
On the other hand, the price of lithium has also shot up as automakers increase production of electric vehicles. If EV prices don’t fall as forecast, it will be less cost-effective to replace internal-combustion vehicles.
Because it takes years to plan and build the type of energy infrastructure needed and because vehicles, furnaces and other appliances typically last a long time, the study calls for action this decade. Otherwise costs go up.
Chandler said Wisconsin residents need to call on lawmakers to act now.
“We’re paying the bill now,” she said. “Why don’t we invest in a smarter, healthier future for everybody?”
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