MGE goal: Is net-zero carbon realistic?

Jeff Keebler agrees that Madison Gas and Electric’s net-zero carbon goal is kind of a moonshot, but he’s quick to add that such ambitious projects have been successful, especially if the stakes are high enough.

Keebler, MGE’s chairman, president, and CEO, says meeting this goal by 2050 will require technologies not yet commercially available or cost-effective. By that, he not only means it will depend on advances in renewable forms of energy, but also nascent technologies that are still to be fully developed.

The goal is aligned with another ambitious objective, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. “There are some people who, in the recent past, have said getting to the IPCC goal of zero net carbon for the electric industry is somewhat of a moonshot,” Keebler notes. “Even though we use the moon analogy in the discussion, we know we can make progress on this. We just don’t know exactly what technology will be able to do, and we don’t know what pieces of technology that we’ll be able to put into our plan over time. We do know that we can take aggressive action, and we have been taking aggressive action.”

Energy futures

Jeff Keebler

MGE generates and distributes electricity to 153,000 customers in Dane County, and purchases and distributes natural gas to 161,000 customers in seven south-central and western Wisconsin counties. As Keebler notes, the utility already has reduced carbon dioxide emissions 23 percent since 2005, and as part of its Energy 2030 framework, it was already on path to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

In terms of renewables, energy storage enabled by more efficient batteries could further leverage renewable sources such as wind and solar, and reduce reliance on carbon-heavy fossil fuels. Developing larger, cheaper batteries has been acknowledged as a stepping stone to using wind and solar more widely because this would enable utilities to store that electricity and use it at night when there is no sun, or on hot, stagnant days when there is no wind.

Battery technology applies here because of the necessity of storing electricity generated from wind and solar until it’s needed. Utilities call this dispatchability — dispatching the amount of generation that’s on the system to match customer loads at a given point in time. “It’s really the taking of the generation that comes from renewable resources, that occurs at time periods that customers aren’t using as much as what’s being generated, storing it for that time period, and then drawing down the battery to provide energy to customers when they do want to use it,” Keebler explains. “An example of that is wind. We may have a windy night and we’re generating a lot of wind electricity, but customers aren’t using as much. So, you would store the wind that’s being generated at 3 a.m. in the morning and use it at 8 a.m. in the morning when customers start using more electricity.”



In addition to improved battery technology, other innovations could include carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, or carbon dioxide removal strategies. “They are not fully developed, and in the cases where some of them have been developed, they have been developed in test areas, not large-scale areas,” Keebler says.

Another potential source that utility executives are routinely asked about is nuclear power, which emits far less carbon but poses other environmental and political challenges. Given MGE’s size, Keebler notes that current nuclear technology “just doesn’t work” for the utility. “There are a lot of issues with that,” he says. “There may someday be small-scale nuclear and other things that might work for us, so we don’t know exactly what those parts and pieces will be, but we know what our goal is, and we will hit our goal.”

Getting help

To reach this decarbonization milestone, MGE has enlisted the help of a sustainable partner in UW–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. MGE wants the Nelson Institute to evaluate its pathway to net zero carbon and ensure that it’s consistent with what the global scientists recommend.

Leading this assessment will be Tracey Holloway, the 2017–2021 Gaylord Nelson Distinguished Professor at the UW–Madison, who is jointly appointed in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. Holloway, an air quality scientist, notes the assessment will be done by a small team in the Nelson Institute’s Center for Sustainability in the Global Environment, or SAGE. She adds that MGE already has been working with her colleague, Dan Vimont, who directs the Center on Climatic Research in the Nelson Institute. Essentially, the Nelson Institute will advise MGE on whether its program is consistent with the most up-to-date climate science.

In Holloway’s view, there is no end to the potential for technology to keep moving in a direction that makes low-carbon electricity cheaper and more reliable. “There is a lot that’s going to happen between now and 2050,” Holloway notes. “If you look at the past, just in the past 10 or 20 years, solar has become much cheaper. Wind has become much cheaper. Batteries have become much cheaper. There is a lot of change that has been going on, and there is certainly a lot of change that will go on during the next few decades that will support this kind of move to low-carbon electricity.”

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