The green in “going green” also refers to money

0521 Bizofconservation Issue 1

When the term green energy is used, it’s most often used in the context of the environmental benefits, but there also is an economic component — a strong economic component — because a clean environment is vital for business development. Manufacturers, farmers, brewers, tourism, and outdoor recreation all depend on clean water, air, and access to public lands, so the connection is self-evident, if underappreciated.

In this look at the Business of Conservation, we focus on the business aspects of green energy, including the green in Dane County’s green economy, the carbon footprints of individual businesses, biogas and its impact on agriculture, the commitment of local utilities for a net-zero carbon economy, and the future of the auto business, especially now that electric cars increasingly are becoming part of the local fleet mix. We also examine whether Wisconsin is risking energy shortages (ala California and Texas) by doing too much, too soon, and we explore the concept of environmental justice.

Renewable forms of energy are on track to become the fastest-growing contributor to electricity production in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The EIA’s 2021 annual energy outlook reports that while renewables currently represent about 21% of electricity generated in the U.S., that figure is expected to double by 2050 — the year many utilities aim to achieve net-zero carbon. Over that same span, the administration reports that traditional sources such as natural gas will decline slightly from 40% to 36% of electricity production, and the shares of electricity generated from nuclear power and coal will almost be cut in half. As a result, advocates of renewable energy believe the cost of electricity will gradually decline from the current average of 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

This progress largely will be due to new technologies and continuing government investment — President Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan for infrastructure would devote billions of dollars to energy efficient construction, retrofitting, and modernization — because the economic models make sense.

Where’s the green in Dane County’s green economy?

Public incentives create opportunities for businesses.

By Kimberly Hazen

There’s a new sheriff in town — in the White House to be more precise — and a new pro-green agenda has stock analysts pontificating about whether President Biden’s approach to renewable energy and the environment will enable some companies to surge ahead of others.

Biden’s version of the Green New Deal hopes to establish an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets toward a healthier environment, make investments in clean energy, climate research, and innovation, and incentivize clean energy innovation, especially in communities most impacted by climate change. In broad terms, industries that stand to benefit are most likely already in the game — companies in the fields of energy efficiency, data analysis, zero-emission transportation (including the Madison-based Zerology), construction, research, and recycling.

There are opportunities for businesses close to home. In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers’ budget is getting good reviews from conservationists for its focus on land, climate, and water quality initiatives. Investing in clean energy and reducing emissions from transportation are pillars of Evers’ budget to address climate, including clean-energy credits for businesses, grants for research on renewable energy, expansion of the Focus on Energy program, and job training for workers to take advantage of the clean energy economy. With the help of these initiatives, the state hopes to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

In 2017, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi created the nation’s first county Office of Energy and Climate Change to implement a county-wide climate action plan. The Dane County Climate Action Plan includes updated climate projections and over 100 policy and program recommendations associated with clean energy use, transportation, and agriculture.

For business owners, obstacles to becoming more energy efficient are melting away. As Parisi notes, there are programs and incentives available to virtually every business, nonprofit, and faith community that allows them to implement energy efficient, renewable projects with little or no money out of pocket.

The PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) program was launched to enable commercial property owners to obtain low-cost, long-term financing for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water conservation. “We have found ways to create win-win situations,” Parisi notes.

For utility companies, cost savings and profitability are the key factors in their recent green energy investments. Alliant Energy has put more than one gigawatt of solar power projects, which are estimated to save over $2 billion, in front of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. “Cost savings to our customers is where every project plan starts,” says Ben Lipari, Alliant Energy’s director of resource development.

Beyond the savings, the projects have an important economic impact. The construction, operations, and maintenance associated with solar project facilities, compared to their fossil fuel counterparts, are much more beneficial to local economies. Construction of a new project means money to landowners for the sale or lease of land, and since the construction cycle can be anywhere from six to 12 months, local economies benefit from the day-to-day needs of the project and workers.

Alliant Energy estimates that its solar projects will create more than 800 local jobs in five counties. Upon completion, community rate savings are expected to be funneled into parks, local infrastructure, and other projects that benefit residents.

However, a trickle-down effect from projects of big utilities might not be the only way to look at the benefits of clean energy. Nick Hylla, executive director of Midwest Renewable Energy Association, a member-supported organization promoting clean energy, says it’s really about a bigger shift in thinking. “An advanced energy economy is about mainstreeting investments and allowing the business to have a choice and the ability to take their money and invest in energy resiliency on their own facility to save them money,” he notes.

Hylla adds that there is a great potential to not only distribute energy but distribute investment. “This is less about winners and losers and more about a transition of a business model from one that’s closed and monopolized and investor centric to one that’s more community-centered, business-centered, and free-market oriented.”

Utility players

Their game? To fast track energy tech.

By Jan Wilson

Since pledging to meet net-zero carbon emission standards by 2050, area utilitiesare moving fast to meet their clean energy goals. The enabling technology is in their favor and advancing so quickly that some goals could be achieved much earlier.

Madison Gas and Electric’s grid is being transformed as the utility works to decarbonize its energy supply. “We’re doing everything we can today to lower carbon emissions as quickly and as cost-effectively as we can,” says Jeff Keebler, chairman, president, and CEO.

In May 2019, when MGE announced its goal of net-zero carbon electricity by 2050, it was one of the first utilities in the nation to do so. The utility is on track to achieve carbon reductions of at least 65% by 2030.

It also is investing in utility-scale battery storage and launched a battery storage initiative with some residential customers as well. Battery storage helps utilities keep costs down while maintaining electric reliability.

As coal-fired plants are replaced by cleaner energy, solar and wind farms are quickly escalating.

Most recently, Madison Gas and Electric, together with WEC Energy Group subsidiary Wisconsin Public Service, submitted an application to purchase the 92-megawatt Red Barn Wind Farm in Grant County, enough to power 4,000 households. If approved, MGE would own a 9.1-megawatt portion, producing about 300 megawatts of renewable energy.

The same companies also are looking to purchase solar and battery storage from the 250-megawatt Darien Solar Energy Center in Rock and Walworth counties. If approved, MGE will break ground in 2022 and own about 10% of the Darien plant.

(MGE lists its many initiatives on its website at www.mge.com/net-zero-carbon-electricity.)

Meanwhile, Alliant Energy’s Clean Energy Blueprint outlines the company’s transition to cleaner, renewable energy as two Wisconsin coal-fired plants are phased out by 2025. The company is targeting a clean energy mix that includes solar, wind, hydropower, electrification, fiber optics, and battery storage.

(For more information, see https://poweringwhatsnext.alliantenergy.com/clean-energy/.)

Jeff Hanson, director of environmental services and corporate responsibility at Alliant Energy, says technology related to wind and solar is advancing rapidly, and so is battery-storage technology, whether it’s centered on lithium-ion batteries that hold charges longer or other storage media.

Other technologies are being researched as well, from geothermal to hydrogen and other carbon-free fuels. “Are they right around the corner? Maybe,” Hanson opines. “I will say there’s a tremendous amount of effort that’s going into it. A lot of the concepts are there but getting them to be deployable at a utility-scale level is more of a challenge than the actual technologies are.”

He says hydrogen-based fuels and exploding water atoms, for example, are being researched successfully in a lab, but here too, scaling up is the trick.

Alliant just announced an investment of $515 million to build six solar farms in five Wisconsin counties that would add 414 megawatts to Alliant’s energy grid, enough to keep the lights on in 100,000 homes for a year. The purchase of another six projects announced last year is still awaiting Public Service Commission approval, but could add another 675 megawatts.

Alliant hopes all 12 projects will go online at some point in 2023.

Tracking your carbon footprint

Local businesses large and small can take action to reduce their carbon footprint.

By Jason Busch

Do you know what your business’ carbon footprint is? Do you care? You should.

According to a 2018 Nielsen report that studied purchases of three of the most common, fast-moving consumer goods — coffee, chocolate, and bath products — products with sustainability claims generally outperformed the growth rate of total products in their respective categories by a two-to-one margin. Further, in a 2019 survey, nearly half of all respondents and three-quarters of millennial workers said they’d be willing to accept
a smaller salary to work for a company that’s environmentally responsible.

Kathy Kuntz, director of the Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change, says the county’s Climate Action Plan creates opportunities for businesses to measure and reduce their own carbon footprints. Local business efforts are entirely voluntary under the county’s plan.

“Some businesses — even small businesses — think about and actively manage their carbon footprint,” notes Kuntz. “There is, for example, a local dentist here in Dane County — Artisan Dental — that is the first general dentistry practice in the U.S. whose operations are carbon neutral.”

The Office of Energy & Climate Change’s website, DaneClimateAction.org, features an online tool that enables any business to calculate its carbon footprint and compare it to that of similar businesses.

According to Kuntz, the best reason to explore your business’ carbon footprint is to assess the relative efficiency of your operations. A business that wastes energy or other resources will have a high carbon footprint relative to more efficient businesses. “Wasting resources is akin to burning money; smart business leaders are always looking for opportunities to eliminate waste.”

Large and small businesses can also take advantage of carbon offsets, advises Kuntz. “I do see some small businesses, especially B Corporations, choosing to buy offsets. For small businesses, especially those renting office or retail space, there is usually an opportunity to manage electric usage — controlling plug loads, for example. Often these businesses pay for their electric usage, so they could also opt to buy green power as a way to reduce those emissions.”

Businesses can choose spaces where the landlord commits to energy efficiency or renewable energy, Kuntz notes. Even in rental space, a small business can control its transportation emissions; a consulting firm might opt to do meetings virtually rather than flying around the country.

Kuntz issues a challenge to the idea that it is always more expensive to be green. “Having an office full of equipment that stays on all night is wasteful — the business is spending what would otherwise be profits on electric bills for idling equipment. Reducing waste increases profits. Even if we think about energy efficiency — a lighting upgrade that pays for itself in two years and lasts 15 years delivers a rate of return you cannot find in the financial markets.

“To realize the consumer and employee benefits from sustainability,” she adds, “businesses must talk about the efforts they are making to be more sustainable.”

Environmental justice

Moving ahead without leaving people behind

By Kimberly Hazen

Take a look at any medium or large city and you’ll find marginalized communities downwind from factories and power plants. In poor rural areas, you’ll find landfills, animal containment facilities, mining operations, logging activities, and incinerators. That’s not a coincidence.

Poor communities are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts. Ironically, people in these communities most likely did little to contribute to the problems. “For the most part, the people who contribute the least to climate change are impacted by it the most,” notes Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

What’s more, people who live, work, and play in the most polluted environments are commonly people of color, an illustration of how the push for racial equity dovetails into the fight for environmental justice. The key to shifting to a more racially equitable environment is to include everyone in the search for solutions. The Dane County Climate Action Plan was created with help from representatives from the University of Wisconsin, renewable and sustainability advocates, the Urban League of Greater Madison, Centro Hispano, and others. “We need to have everyone at the table when we’re looking at the challenges,” remarked Parisi, “and everyone impacted should be deciding the solutions.”

At the state level, Gov. Tony Evers recently signed Wisconsin Act 24, a new law to provide a stable funding source for the Citizens Utility Board (CUB), the state’s only advocate for residential and small business utility customers. CUB is an independent, nonprofit group that represents customers in rate cases and utility construction proceedings before the state Public Service Commission. According to Evers, “CUB’s funding will be more stable and sustainable, and will allow CUB to remain focused on its mission of advocating for Wisconsin families and small businesses who don’t have an army of attorneys at their disposal.”

With biogas, farms and lakes can coexist

Phosphorus from animal waste is a threat to local lakes, but new technologies and processes that produce biogas could be the ultimate win-win solution.

By Joe Vanden Plas

A number of promising technologies have emerged to prevent phosphorus from farm waste from getting into the local watershed, and the production of biogas is one of them. Dane County is sold on the environmental and business benefits of this fuel source, and so it has developed a biogas facility at its Rodefeld Landfill on Madison’s east side.

Not to be confused with another biogas facility in Springfield, which will use anaerobic digestion to turn farm waste into renewable energy, this one takes household waste, including food waste, that has gone into the landfill, explains John Welch, director of Dane County’s Department of Waste & Renewables. Once it gets into the landfill, it acts as a digester because deep inside that pile of waste, there is no oxygen, meaning it’s anaerobic. As the waste breaks down, it produces biogas that is 50–55% methane.

The natural gas that runs through a pipeline to your furnace is about 95–97% methane. For the digester-produced gas to approach that, elements like carbon dioxide and nitrogen must be removed. “We have areas of landfill where we are extracting gas, and we haven’t put waste in those areas for 20 years,” Welch explains. “We extract anywhere from 1,600–1,800 standard cubic feet of gas every minute.”

For farms, biogas production is a way to manage nutrients and prevent phosphorus from running into local waterways. Farms that invest in anaerobic digestion on their sites, clean the gas, and bring it to the biogas facility receive a preferential rate for offloading their gas. Keeping energy dollars local adds to the business case. Daniels General Contractors built the offload station that allows farmers to bring biogas to the site. “It was a good, competitively bid project that a local firm was able to do,” notes COO Sam Daniels.

“We don’t have natural gas reserves, and we don’t have oil, so all of those energy dollars are leaving the state,” adds Welch. “Now, we have more of those dollars staying local, and we have companies like Daniels, which is employing people to build these facilities. We have our own employees and other contractors that are operating the facility, so those dollars are staying local to generate renewable energy.”

In addition, Dane County has installed a nutrient concentration system, which also has the potential to prevent farm runoff and help farmers efficiently manage manure. Developed by Aqua Innovations, it serves the county’s digester operation in Springfield, and it could be a source of fascination for those who visit World Dairy Expo.

With this system, solids are separated, phosphorus is prevented from entering the watershed, remaining nutrients can be applied to farm fields, and environmentally compliant water is produced. “There is a lot of interest in it because it’s a solution to so many challenges, both environmental and economic, for a farm operation,” says Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

“One of things we’ve found is that the nutrient concentration system can be very valuable to anaerobic digesters, so it’s not just a solution for large dairies trying to manage their manure processes and optimize manure management,” adds John Sorensen, CEO of Aqua Innovations. “It’s very beneficial for the creation of renewable natural gas through anaerobic digestion, particularly when you have a manure-only stream.”

Verdant vehicles

Hybrid and electric vehicles are no longer just a niche market.

By Jason Busch

Toyota’s Prius, the world’s first mass-produced petrol-electric hybrid vehicle, was launched in the U.S. in 1997, and since then the availability and affordability of hybrid and electric vehicles has increased dramatically. Local auto dealers can attest to not only the popularity of these vehicles but also the green impact they’re having.

“It is absolutely a growing chunk of our business, growing from about 5% of our sales 15 years ago to about 50% of the vehicles we sold [in February],” says Rob Jordan, assistant general manager for Smart Motors.

He cites several reasons for that. “It is now mainstream to own a hybrid vehicle, whereas 15 years ago it was somewhat of a niche market that consisted almost entirely of the Toyota Prius and required large federal tax incentives to help customers with the purchase. Even 10 years ago, the Prius was the only high-volume hybrid on the market.

However, as consumers have become more accepting of the idea of a hybrid or alternate fuel vehicle, manufacturers have responded. If you wanted a hybrid years ago, you probably had to drive a small vehicle with little storage space, but now there is
a hybrid available in every market segment, from trucks to compacts.

“While some of this growth is clearly driven by consumer acceptance and demand, it’s also being pushed by federal and state regulations not only on emissions but also on fuel economy,” Jordan adds.

Tom Zimbrick, CEO of Zimbrick Inc., says that when his dealerships started selling the Honda Insight 20 years ago, it was Honda’s only hybrid vehicle. Now, Zimbrick sells hybrid cars and hybrid SUVs. Sales of hybrids or electric vehicles (EVs) vary with every franchise, but in March, 18% of Zimbrick’s Audi sales were either plug-in hybrid or full electric. “This is the highest percentage we have seen, but we expect that portion of our sales to grow.”

More people are considering hybrid or electric cars because they want to decrease their carbon footprint. Gasoline prices do not seem to be a motivator. “National legislation has moved automakers toward gasoline alternatives,” says Zimbrick, adding that General Motors hopes to sell only zero-emissions new cars and trucks by 2035. Meanwhile, Jordan says Toyota’s goal is to have 40% of its new vehicle sales electrified by 2025.

Headwinds include the lack of a widespread charging system, the time to fully charge an electric vehicle — hours vs. minutes — and range anxiety.

“I would say customers are more willing to pay a premium to go green,” says Zimbrick. “Cost is just one headwind for widespread electric vehicle adoption. In all areas, we are getting better.”

Too much too soon?

Is Wisconsin headed for rolling blackouts?

By Jan Wilson

Last August, California, arguably the greenest state in terms of clean energy alternatives, suffered rolling blackouts for the first time in 20 years due to an admitted history of poor planning for the unexpected. In February, Texas — which decided years ago to separate from the nation’s regional power grids — was tragically caught off guard when sub-zero temperatures resulted in a shutdown of most of its electrical grid, leading to the deaths of at least 111 people at last report.

Wisconsin is part of a 15-state interconnected region operated by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which also was challenged in 2019 by minus-45-degree temperatures in the Dakotas, leading to rolling blackouts but no complete failures. With Wisconsin committing
to net-zero emissions by 2050, is there some risk that we’re jumping the gun?

Scott Manley, executive vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, says yes. The state currently produces less than 10% of its electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar, he notes. “Half of our carbon emissions in Wisconsin come from automobiles and residential heating. So, the 2050 goals that politicians flout unrealistically ignores massive changes to the way people heat their homes in Wisconsin, and massive changes to how we transport ourselves from point A to point B, whether going to the grocery store or visiting a relative.

“Only 1% of our automobiles in Wisconsin are electric, leaving about 99% powered by cars and trucks fueled by gasoline,” he adds. “The idea that we’ll get rid of gasoline-powered vehicles and suddenly switch our electric generation from coal and natural gas and other sources is not realistic and will take a very long time, perhaps longer than 2050.”

Carbon emissions have been declining over the past 10 years thanks to the private sector, he argues, and will continue falling. “We owe it to ourselves, before we completely rearrange our economy and change the way we deliver and produce energy, to make sure we’re dealing with accurate information.”

Others say the path to net-zero carbon does not have to be haphazard; in fact, it can be “replace as you go.” Brendan Conway, manager of media relations at WEC Energy Group, emphasizes energy preparedness well into the future. WEC and its utilities, We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service, plan to invest $2 billion into new solar, wind, and battery-storage projects for its utilities by 2025. As older, less-efficient fossil-fueled plants are retired, WEC will replace that capacity with new generation.

Conway says the key is developing a diverse fuel mix including renewables, battery storage, and 24/7 power generation. “We all have the same goal,” Conway notes, “to ensure that now and in the future our customers have the safe, reliable energy they depend on.”

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