There is a battle brewing in Wisconsin that could have lessons for anyone who cares about the future of renewable energy and combating climate change.
Until now, much of the discussion about these topics has been in two camps – green and red, basically – but it will not be that simple going forward if the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line is any indication.
Much of the binary thinking of the past is understandable. The Trump administration has gone out of its way to promote coal, the dirtiest energy source, and even before that, many Republicans adopted “Solyndra” as a mantra. It referred to a manufacturer of solar cells that received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Energy Department, under President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus program, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – and then filed for bankruptcy.
Solyndra was not an isolated case, but neither was it indicative of what has become a robust and growing field of renewable development. Great strides have been made in scaling up solar and wind power. Just as importantly, more remain to be made, including in battery or energy-storage capacity, in order to make the electric grid non-carbon-based and to do it on anything like the timetables that some progressives are now demanding.
In Wisconsin, the state’s public service commission is weighing whether to allow the construction of the 120-mile, high-voltage Cardinal-Hickory Creek line, from wind turbines and other power sources in Iowa to the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin’s capital.
MISO, a nonprofit grid operator active across the Midwest, designated the line as useful for grid stability and efficiency and for meeting renewable energy portfolio standards.
Ratepayers would be billed for the line, which would be built by the privately-owned American Transmission Company.
Some farmers, citizens groups, environmentalists and Amish residents – there is a formidable alliance – are opposed. They say it is ecologically disruptive, and that it will benefit the builder at customers’ expense, which is sort of the way free markets work.
They also maintain the line could be used to transmit electricity from burning carbon fuels, although this would be less likely as more wind power comes online, which the line is meant to facilitate.
The impasse raises questions: Do we want to continue on the only road now open with conversions to renewables? Do we only want to do that if nature will be untouched or if there will be no profit-taking? Are those impossible demands?
Can we do it with utilities as they now exist? Consider the obstacle to solar in Montezuma County, where Empire Electric, a cooperative, does not have a substation large enough to accommodate large-scale solar.
Do we trust government to get it done? Are we, for example, OK with an expanded public sector taking over energy production? If so, must we wait until the next Democratic president to act, no matter how long that takes? We now have people in Congress who claim the world will end in 2030 if we don’t start now.
Suppose Congress could authorize the nationalization of parts of the energy sector right away and override a veto – do we even want the current administration in charge of a much bigger government?
And if you expect government to behave like a coalition of environmentalists and the Amish, are you setting yourself up for disappointment?
This is a lot to consider, and there will be more hard choices to come if the fate of one transmission line in the Midwest is any indication – but this is also probably just what happens when a plurality of citizens insist someone must do something without regard to how.