In today’s La Crosse Tribune:
When the fifth-grade students at Evergreen Elementary in Holmen researched and weighed in on whether to build the Badger-Coulee transmission line, the result was more than “an admirable exercise in getting kids to think …” as Tom Still wrote in his column in the June 13 Tribune. It was an inspirational lesson for us all.
Rather than accept that battles waged about high-voltage regional transmission lines are between not-in-my-backyard challengers and straight-line engineers, or coal vs. renewable energy, we should get curious, educated and involved.
• Why, when energy efficiency is the fastest way to save money and reduce our carbon footprint and it increases grid reliability, is there disproportionate focus on transmission? Is it the fact that utility profits decrease when energy efficiency and ratepayer-owned renewables increase that suppresses viable alternatives?
• Why do for-profit transmission companies make over 50 percent operating income when the average for all U.S. industries is 17 percent? Is this why Xcel Energy and American Transmission Co. waged a federal battle over who should own the Badger-Coulee line?
Keeping the lights on is a compelling marketing message. But, the reality is, we’ve known since the 1970s that transmitting centrally generated electrons to distant load centers — be they renewable or fossil fuel based — presents national security and reliability issues.
Recognition of these shortcomings led to a 2012 conclusion by the then Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the nation’s electrical future may well belong to distributed generation such as rooftop solar rather than central power stations and generators far from demand.
Like the telephone industry that fundamentally changed and improved due to wireless technologies, the electrical industry has the unprecedented opportunity to transform in a user-friendly way, and create jobs, save money and address global climate change along the way.
It also requires that we scrutinize strategies to extend the “old way,” as regional transmission does for centralized generation. And it requires recognizing that fossil fuel interests and utilities benefit from centralization, and they’ll work to protect this.
Encouragingly, many states are taking the fork in the road by implementing aggressive energy efficiency goals and removing barriers to ratepayer-owned renewables. We ask the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to do the same for Wisconsin.
In Minnesota, the Public Utilities Commission and innovative utilities are proving solar can be a better option than natural gas when all costs and benefits are accounted for. California and some East Coast states are investing in local self-sufficient “micro-grids,” enabling reliability, resiliency and significant carbon reduction.
Following the lead of the fifth-graders finds us wishing for more innovation and thoughtful consideration of all our options in Wisconsin and wondering which way is best for their future. Rather than accept status quo, we heed the inspirational words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Deb Severson is a member of Save Our Unique Lands and the Citizens Energy Task Force.