Court’s EPA decision aside, markets and innovation steadily at work
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling rejecting the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to reshape the nation’s energy grid has been roundly criticized by groups that believe reining in the causes of climate change cannot wait for constitutional niceties such as congressional and state approval.
Whether they hate or love the high court’s ruling, those who believe in the urgency of climate change action should now place more trust in three forces — innovation, incentives, and market adoption — that can move the dial. Wisconsin can be a poster child for all.
In a 6–3 decision issued June 30, the court said the EPA lacks the power to impose a nationwide cap‐and‐trade climate policy based on an Obama-era plan to expand such enforcement through the Clean Air Act. In 2016, the court had stayed EPA’s “Clean Power Plan,” recognizing it might not pass constitutional muster.
While some politicians still deny human activity is altering the world’s environment, many private companies and utilities are taking steps on their own within the framework of market-ready innovation, customer acceptance, and government “carrot-and-stick” incentives.
Coal-fired plants are being retired in most places in the United States and very few, if any, new coal plants are on the horizon. Even the construction of natural gas plants for electricity generation may be peaking. Instead, alternatives such as solar and wind are on the rise.
That’s not because energy company executives have suddenly become Green Party members, but because they want to pursue long-term strategies to keep the lights on while reducing carbon emissions. It simply makes good business sense over time. Here are some examples:
- Wisconsin is poised for more solar energy growth. Solar panel costs have declined over time, even if supply-chain issues persist. Wisconsin has solar energy incentives for users, there are many accredited installers, and many solar projects — large and small — are underway. The state Public Service Commission has a plan to boost Wisconsin’s standing among the top solar states. Possible drawbacks over time: A continued dispute over “third-party” solar projects and whether they can tie in the grid, and local opposition to some large solar farms.
- While delayed a year or more over fears of brownouts, some major coal plants are still scheduled for retirement by 2004–25. Alliant Energy and WEC Energy Group recently delayed plant retirement plans by about a year after the regional grid — called the Midcontinent Independent System Operator — announced it faces capacity shortfalls this summer and next in its northern and central regions. Grid operators noted it “will be increasingly reliant on emergency or non-firm resources” to ensure service reliability in those regions. Still, Wisconsin’s heavy reliance on coal will diminish sooner than later.
- Nuclear power is also getting a fresh look as “next-generation” plants are being proposed. One such proposal involves Dairyland Power Cooperative in La Crosse.
- Energy innovation is a part of the research and development footprint at most of Wisconsin’s major universities and colleges. The UW–Madison is a leader in fission and fusion research, with growing expertise around hydrogen energy. The Wisconsin Energy Institute and Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center on the Madison campus also work with industry. Similar programs exist at UW–Milwaukee, Marquette University, and beyond. Sometimes, industry and academic research is not tied to energy generation but other ways to reduce carbon emissions. Examples include battery storage innovation, more efficient electric motors, better control systems, and even production of low-carbon cement.
- While many of the “best” wind sites in Wisconsin have been developed, the state still has potential for more than 114,000 kilowatts of wind power. Stacker.com also reported in 2021 that wind makes up nearly 3% of Wisconsin’s grid.
With more electric vehicles on the way along with current demands, Wisconsin will need reliable electric power. It will also need cleaner ways to process it. Those solutions will more likely come from innovators and market forces than government fiat.
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