Walker Makes the Right Call on Biomass Plant

This was originally going to be a blog critical of Gov. Scott Walker for scotching plans to convert the Charter Street Power Plant from a combination of biomass and natural gas to strictly natural gas as part of its replacement of coal-burning units.

I was going to rip Walker for not understanding the value proposition from developing an alternative source of energy, and that getting Wisconsin forestry and agriculture into the act would keep more dollars here. All good arguments put forth by the proponents of the biomass conversion.

Then I heard about the difference in price tags between the combined biomass-natural gas approach, and the strict natural gas plant favored by Walker. We're talking somewhere between $80 million and $100 million in a state that faces a $3.3 billion structural deficit.

Game over.

The more expensive boiler, upwards of $100 million to $125 million all by its lonesome, would have enabled the plant to burn plant-based fuels such as switch grass and wood chips. With that boiler, it was the most expensive building project ever approved for UW-Madison, about $250 million worth. Instead, pure natural gas boilers will be installed.

The economics of these decisions have to make sense, and ignoring them is the surest way to keep hurtling ourselves toward a debt crisis — both on the state and federal levels.

I support public and private investment in biomass because meeting our energy needs is a large and complex, and affordable and plentiful energy is both an economic and a national security issue. We need to do everything, and both biomass and natural gas are big pieces of the puzzle. But, again, the economics have to make sense, especially in a state must come to grips with a large structural deficit.

We're starting to strip the bark off of certain green propositions that turned out to be more hype than hope. Ethanol? It pollutes more than people thought; even Al Gore is in recovery on that point. Those "green" light bulbs? They are burning out faster than promised.

If green advocates don't stop separating reality from hype, and there is real energy efficiency value in many green initiatives, they are going to lose all credibility. As UW professor John Nelson points out, the biggest bang for the buck in so-called green building is in the more efficient operation of buildings, not necessarily in building materials and the like. So you'll excuse me if I approach this subject with a more critical eye.

To his credit, Walker is leaving no stone unturned to restore Wisconsin to fiscal sanity, including something particularly smart — enlisting the help of state employees, the people who know their jobs best, to recommend qualitative improvements in the way things are done. Making this difficult choice on biomass is but another example. Had the price been more competitive, it would be a much different story.

And in case you think Walker's stand is the most conservative he could have taken, guess again. A lot of people outside of Madison wonder why the state and the university are into power-generation to begin with.

The biomass-natural gas plant was assailed as a Jim Doyle "boondoggle" by some, but that critique is way too harsh. Wisconsin should aspire to be a leader in biomass development, and it will be in a better position to do that with healthier finances.

Three Cheers for Ted Thompson

I'm sure I was not alone in my defense of Packers GM Ted Thompson's stewardship of the Green Bay Packers, but if there are any remaining Thompson haters after the Packers remarkable Super Bowl run, they are silent right now. The man is a superb talent evaluator, not just because the Packers advanced to the Super Bowl, but because of the way they did it — overcoming enough season-ending injuries to make them the NFL's 2010 MASH unit.

The depth the Packers built, and Thompson's ability to pluck free agents off the street who made real contributions, proved once again that in sports and other industries, quality management matters. (The same is true, by the way, for the Pat Richter-Barry Alvarez era at the University of Wisconsin). With the list of key players who return from injury next year — Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, Morgan Burnett, Mike Neal, and Brandon Chillar, to name a few — the Packers have the luxury to draft for more depth in 2011. Personally, I'd do more to fortify the offensive line, but that's just me.

Perhaps Brett Favre probably won't be completely in the rear view mirror until the team wins the Super Bowl, but nobody with an ounce of sense questions the transition to Aaron Rodgers, Ted Thompson's first draft pick as Packers' GM, by the way. He hired Coach Mike McCarthy, brought in 20 of the 22 starters, and signed free agent gems like Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. It's "A-Rod's" team, but Thompson built it for him.

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