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The race to net zero

How feasible is net-zero carbon? The technology is there, but what will it cost?

MGE’s 66-megawatt (MW) wind farm near Saratoga, Iowa, became operational in early 2019 and will deliver energy to power about 47,000 households. The project’s 33 turbines are set on 13 square miles of mostly large-grain farms. Most of the surrounding farmland will continue producing crops.

MGE’s 66-megawatt (MW) wind farm near Saratoga, Iowa, became operational in early 2019 and will deliver energy to power about 47,000 households. The project’s 33 turbines are set on 13 square miles of mostly large-grain farms. Most of the surrounding farmland will continue producing crops.

Madison Gas & Electric

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

The race to save the planet is firing up even as the United States served notice that it will be pulling out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement to curb emissions that scientists say lead to climate change. The move wasn’t unexpected, as the U.S. signaled long ago its intentions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the deal “an unfair economic burden” on the U.S. economy and promised the U.S. would continue to offer a “realistic and pragmatic model” solution to reduce emissions.

In 2017, the U.S. was the second largest producer of territorial fossil fuel carbon dioxide based on its share of global CO2 emissions, according to Of the top three emitters, China is the worst offender at 27.2 percent, followed by the U.S. at 14.58 percent, and India, 6.82 percent.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that saving the planet and limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, would require all nations to commit to immediately cutting emissions to zero by 2050. But emissions continue to rise, and chances are the earth’s temperature will follow suit. In fact, the latest reports conclude that left unchecked, the earth’s temperature could rise 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by 2021.

The race is on. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and supporters of the Green New Deal would like to accelerate that plan to 2030. 2050 is tough enough, but 2030 is “functionally impossible,” insists Alex Trembath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research group, in a Bloomberg Businessweek report, and it’s likely very expensive.

The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, a global collaboration of energy research teams, suggests that cleaning up U.S. industries by 2050 could require investments of more than $1 trillion annually.

Ignoring the problem isn’t the answer, either, according to a U.N. Environment Finance Initiative project that suggests companies could end up paying $1.2 trillion over the next 15 years if they fail to address rising carbon dioxide levels.

South-central Wisconsin companies are taking net-zero carbon targets very seriously. We spoke with representatives from Madison Gas and Electric, Alliant Energy, We Energies, and RENEW Wisconsin who remain actively engaged in the cause to become carbon-neutral or better by 2050. Will it be enough? How much will it cost?

Without a crystal ball, nobody really knows the answer to that question.

Local commitments

MGE was among the first utilities in the nation to announce a goal of a fully decarbonizing electricity by 2050. The company continues to follow its Energy 2030 business framework announced in November 2015 to reach sustainability goals. Since then, it has developed renewable energy projects that will increase its owned renewable capacity by about 600 percent, including its 66-megawatt Saratoga Wind Farm that came online in 2019.

MGE is also working with public and private partners to increase its use of solar energy, with 14 megawatts (MW) already announced in Middleton and Madison, and another 25 MW in the works.

The Madison utility is strategizing with the community and businesses to decarbonize electricity generation; to electrify transportation, whether electric vehicles, fleets, delivery vehicles, or public transportation; and to promote energy efficiency. For example, businesses can enroll in MGE’s Shared Solar and Green Power Tomorrow programs, and large commercial customers can participate in the company’s Renewable Energy Rider to customize their own energy-use solutions.

“When we announced our net-zero goal, we said it will require technologies not yet commercially available or cost-effective — and likely will involve technologies not even conceptualized yet — but we know we need crucial reductions in carbon emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050,” acknowledges Jeff Keebler, MGE’s chairman, president, and CEO.

“Sustainability itself is a long-term business strategy,” he adds, “and we know it’s important to many of our local businesses. All of our customers, including businesses, will see their carbon footprint decrease as MGE continues to reduce carbon emissions.”

Meanwhile, Alliant Energy announced a Powering What’s Next initiative to build 1,000 megawatts of solar generation in Wisconsin by the end of 2023, enough to power about 260,000 homes as it accelerates the transition to cleaner energy.

Says Annemarie Newman, Alliant Energy Corp. spokesperson: “We can significantly reduce emissions with technology we have today, and we’re moving forward with that. We believe that technological advancements and other innovations would be needed to fully achieve net-zero carbon as an industry.”

The company also announced a plan to break ground on its first Wisconsin Community Solar project in Fond du Lac County next year.

A RENEW Wisconsin analysis of Alliant Energy’s plans says 1,000 megawatts of power would provide about 2.7 percent of the state’s entire electricity consumption.

But it won’t come without costs, and Newman pointed to the Edison Electric Institute’s call for policies that increase funding and support investments in the energy grid.

What isn’t yet known is whether ratepayers will be able to afford the transition.

Energy watchdog

Todd Stuart, executive director of Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, lobbies for affordable and reliable energy on a daily basis. WIEG represents 30 of the state’s largest businesses, mostly manufacturers, and many of whom pay electric bills of over $1 million each month.

As utilities transition to renewable energy (e.g., utility-scale wind and solar), costs are a significant concern. “Our goal at WIEG is to try to navigate this transition in a small and cost-effective manner to avoid rate shock,” Stuart notes.

Costs for both wind and solar have dropped considerably over the past decade, making them very competitive due in large part to technological improvements and economies of scale.

“The energy industry is changing faster now than it ever has since Edison,” Stuart comments. “Wind has gone down about 70 percent and solar has gone down about 90 percent in costs, including federal tax credits,” he says. That makes both options very competitive, if not even more competitive, with fossil fuels currently.”

Globally, fossil fuel consumption continues to rise, and energy needs are skyrocketing. So as coal plants are retired in favor of less expensive renewables, which technology will pick up the slack?


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