Getting Serious About CO2
Part 1: Have I Got a Deal for You!
What business would make a similar investment seven times and not stop to check its performance?
One that is guaranteed 10.2% return no matter what the performance is.
Collectively, the electric customers of Wisconsin function as one, big investment business1. We spend more than $7 billion per year on electric services for four basic expenses 2. :
Want to guess which of these expenses is the most effective at reducing CO2 emissions?
- 50-60% or $50-60/mo payment on debt for power plants, transmission/distribution lines and other grid costs. These projects were previously approved by either the Wisconsin Public Service Commission or commissions in other states.
- 30% for Power ~$30/mo
- 15% to one's Utility ~$15/mo
- 1.2% or ~ $1.20 for Wisconsin's Energy Efficiency program
Since 2006, Wisconsin electric customers have invested in seven expansion transmission lines. All lines promised to deliver savings and faster reduction of the CO2 emissions associated with our electricity use3.
The companies who sold them, American Transmission Co (ATC), Xcel Energy and Dairyland Power Cooperative will not reveal their full costs including perks. They also refuse to describe impacts on average electric bills..4.
This information is of critical interest to electric customers trying to evaluate the Cardinal Hickory Creek promises. State law requires the performance of the Focus on Energy efficiency programs be audited every four years, why doesn't state protect customers from losses from transmission lines?5T They are much costlier. We do, however, have three clues about their probable performance:
[Note to self: Send a quick email9 to my state lawmakers asking them to introduce and approve a law requiring an audit of expansion transmission lines like required for Focus on Energy. ]
- Absence of bragging. Wouldn't a successful transmission builder be want to document to the PSC of Wisconsin savings from prior lines? No description exists in application for 8th line, Cardinal Hickory Creek. SOUL asked builders to estimate congestion savings from the lines. We were told the request is too vague and the requested estimates are too burdensome. 6.
- Our electric bills. Since 2006, Wisconsin rates have risen much faster than the national average and are the second highest in the Midwest. Since 2012, the fixed cost “meter fee” for each customer has risen an average of 9% per year7.
- Transmission builder projections. In 2007, ATC estimated that if Wisconsin electricity use only increased at the rate of .5% per year that the Paddock Rockdale 345 kV line (Beloit-Madison) use would lose about one million dollars per year8. US Department of Energy records show that from 2007 to 2017, WI electricity use dropped . 3% per year-- a significant .8% per year amount under that ATC predicted would create a million per year loss.
Part II: Can We Get a Deal for Us?
Wisconsin electric customers are committed to conservation and environmental goals,..
A 2018 study10 by the American Council for Energy Efficient Economies (ACEEE) shows that Wisconsin electric customer commitment to reducing use and lowering CO2 is high by all standards. Even at its current, under-funded level, the ability target energy efficiency to improve transmission efficiency could be saving use many millions.
During the controversial Badger-Coulee transmission line review in 2014, engineer Bill Powers found that targeting from $4-19 million in energy efficiency, load management and community solar programs would eliminate need for $190 million11 in transmission updates designated as the Low Voltage Alternative to the $500 million transmission line.
Its crucial to keep in mind that our CO2 problem is part and parcel of the power in our outlets. In 2016, power in the Midwest averaged 8% renewable energy, but 73% came from fossil fuel generation12. After many billions spent just on expansion transmission lines, that percentage has increased a few percent. More and more people who have been studying and following transmission expansion for more a decade now understand that utility expansion is too cost and land inefficient to carry us to our ambitious environmental goals. A pleasure drive in almost any direction in Wisconsin shows that our rural economies and habits simply can’t handle the scale of expansion that for-profit, Midwest utility interests have uniquely envisioned as a best case solution.
“The cheapest energy is the energy you don't use in the first place.” - Sheryl Crow
Though most Wisconsinites share the “waste not, want not,” sensibility, many households fall considerably short of even the simplest best practices. For example, electricity consumption dropping around 13% is very common just from someone in the household comparing usage numbers from month to month. There are also a surprising number low and no cost improvements and inventive tricks that can raise the achievement to 30%13. These, combined with increasingly better habits, automatic timers and replacing an inefficient appliance or two can produce cuts as high as 50%14. Unlike the non-guaranteed, estimates that utilities make, these CO2 reductions and dollar savings are both maximized and guaranteed.
Data in The American Council for Energy Efficient Economies report, reveals Wisconsin customers’ innate ability to leverage energy efficiency rebates to slash use15. In 2017, Wisconsin ranked sixth in reduced electricity use per rebate dollar states made available16.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin ranks very low, 36th among 46 participating states, when it comes to the amount our state lawmakers will allow us to pool for broad customer investment. Only South Dakota’s per capita rebate amounts are smaller among midwestern states.
State lawmakers, please note, these dollars do not come from utilities or taxes17; they are the small payments customers make our monthly bills that pass through utilities into a rebate fund that customers draw upon when its time to invest in a highest efficiency appliance, make overdue improvements on a dwelling, buy double insulated windows and use innovations like realtime smartphone and computer use monitoring and control of our houses even when we are at work.
Environmentally, how effective are these appliance, equipment, dwelling and human behavioral improvements at reducing CO2?
Combining state data from ACEEE’s report with state CO2 emission records from the US Department of Energy, one can see that states leading the way in CO2 emission reduction have rebate pools that average three times larger than pools in the lowest performing state group.
There are expected18 dollar to CO2 reduction performance variations in middle state groupings but in overview we can how state’s with CO2 reduction success stories are simply allowing informed and motivated end users to play larger roles. If one visits other states and witnesses the very different attitudes people have about running their lives and homes it comes to mind that Wisconsin has a market place if not a moral obligation to allow customers equity in the dollars we spend. It has been five years since retiring PSC Commissioner Eric Callisto wrote in his final decision,
"I think we should ...evaluate placing a fair and transparent value on distributed generation, and at least start down the discussion path of the role of regulated utilities in a future with flat load growth, increased distributed generation and more robust consumer involvement in energy choices.19“
The profound capabilities of home, business and increasingly community-based solutions are also born out by data in a national finding by the US Department of Energy: 20:
Which 12 year spending record should Wisconsin PSC commissioners reward as they weigh use of millions of our dollars and our powers in considering the Cardinal Hickory Creek transmission line over the next 120 days? With the help of nationally respected engineers, SOUL of Wisconsin, Driftless Area Land Conservancy and The Environmental Law and Policy Center will place before our Commissioners several, Wisconsin-specific Non-Transmission Alternatives to choose from. But sound science, solid economics and legal accountability provide only half of the ingredients . Luckily, we have success stories from several other states to pull from
In the increasing number of cases when state utility commissioners have backed customer preferences for Non-Transmission Alternatives, the most important, common ingredient is massive public persuasion. Letters to editors, phone calls and visits with elected and business leaders-- measures every person can find time to squeeze in. But the most important occasion is massive turn out for public hearings when people can talk directly to Commissioners.
In the most recent success story in New Jersey, an extra day had to be added to the public hearings after the first day was consumed entirely by elected officials and community leaders speaking their priorities. Commissioners should be on hand21 to listen to all us and to experience our generous goals for all of Wisconsin between June 24-28 in Middleton, Dodgeville and Lancaster. Details forthcoming. Adjust your work and vacation schedules.
Part III: Big is Big
With utilities in Wisconsin posing many more renewable energy and natural gas power plants,...
Dropping costs of solar panels and the prospect of affordable battery storage has more people on the urge of “going solar” than ever before22. As we pursue these personal dreams and the collective goal of CO2 reduction, it is crucial to understand that the immortal declaration,“all things are created equal” does not apply to renewable energy. On that theme, also keep in mind that a highly efficient family without savings to dream provide all, equal value.
Home, farm, business and community-serving solar is much better at reducing CO2 reduction for a simple reason. When the sun shines, use of the grid is completely turned off. The adage, “Make hay when the sun shines,” applies to vacuuming, washing clothes, air conditioning, taking showers and numerous other pleasures. A clothes line is directly solar and wind powered. If your dream includes using excess solar power to charge an electric car someday, one quickly learns that conservation is an ongoing and fruitful process.
In contrast, utility-scale renewables increase our dependency on the grid. If utility-controlled electricity markets have any relation to profits, the dominance of fossil fuel generation will reign for decades 23. If CO2 emission reduction is your highest goal, rather than pressuring utilities to eek forward, consider phoning up your lawmakers and setting up a meeting to discuss how she/he can enable you and your neighbors to get things done. A very, very small number of utility employees wake up, look in the mirror and ask, “What can I do to improve the powers of customers today?” If you are content to see some of your dollars being use for expansion, rest well. For-profit utilities are fully capable of building many, many projects for customers to pay for without the benefit of a customer cheering section.
A proposed, 300 MW solar facility aimed at occupying 5-6 square miles of prime farmland near Montfort, in Southwestern WI creates a good model to see how home local and community compare in terms of results24: CO2 emission reduction over time.
Everywhere on earth is someone’s home. A 2-3 mile “drive-by” through a sea of fenced-in solar panels on popular Highway 18 is no minor inconvenience or transformation. To date, all solar plants of this scale have been located in sparse, arid areas. If development on this scale proves to be less environmentally effective, we electric customers would be left paying the costs for monopolized lands, depleted local economies and devastated tax bases. And lost farm land.
“Utility-scale” or grid-feeding renewables are very land intensive. Apply 100% renewable energy goals to Wisconsin’s 2016 electricity use, would engage about 800 square miles of solar installations or about 2400 square miles of wind turbines25. Wisconsin would become an escape from state.
Yet, overnight, in response to public concern about climate change, nearly all utilities are recognizing that renewables are the only kind of power the public will tolerate. Under the rubric of “low cost, cleaner power,” a larger amount of fossil fuel natural gas generation in Wisconsin lurks under the surface26.
Utility clamor for “new steel in the ground,” is now daily news echoed by a state utility commissioner pointing out demand for power is flat and more than enough power exists. Perhaps soon they soon add that it takes 30-75 years for customers to pay down high interest mortgages on power plants. But commissioners in states like Massachusetts with accelerated efficiency and distributed solar programs have quicker come back, they point out that any need for new power plants can be more easily chiseled away than served up. Enjoying the same solar potential and number of customers as Wisconsin, Massachusetts has installed 1500 MW of rooftop solar and only 400 MW of utility scale renewables.
We know new power plants are unnecessary, but our plants are mostly fossil-fuel powered. Is Massachusetts’ style channeling the money to home, business and community solar better in terms of fast CO2 reduction?
If we take the $500 million for the proposed 300 MW solar plant at Montfort/Cobb and invest it in home and business installations at double the current Focus on Energy solar incentive rate, the figures are very compelling. The resulting 191,000 distributed solar installations would avoid 4 to 5 times as much CO2 emissions while saving each household about $76 per month over 30 years. These savings include the 5 kW solar installations costing about $9,000 each after rebates.
Click table to enlarge
As Non-transmission Alternative engineers are prone to add, emission and savings benefits are even higher for direct, community-serving solar arrays prolonging the lifespans of expensive transformers and other transmission expenses. Note that home installations provide savings and comparable emission reductions without Focus on Energy incentives. This counters the argument that utility-scale installations are environmentally superior because solar panels cost less per watt.
Part IV: Not Your Father’s Focus on Energy Program
An “all of the above” energy investment plan directly competes with spending on customers.
Governor Evers recently announced that he wants the 1.2% cap on Wisconsin Efficiency investments lifted.27. Notes to self: Email Evers and thank him, Email my state lawmakers telling them to support this request as like lawmakers did in 2009.
What are some innovative ideas that would improve our Focus on Energy program? Audit after audit, experts single out under developed customer outreach, teaching and giving reliable advice. Most community newspapers are happy to run articles. How about a series featuring winners of prizes for inventive conservation tricks? We have a new agricultural program that most Wisconsin farmers are unaware of. How about modest wages for youth to work under the guidance of retirees to help elderly households install LED bulbs, low-flow shower heads, seal obvious cracks and see that water heater is set to 110°? Proactive programs provide highly valuable, unbiased advice. The current arrangement of presenting web visitors phone numbers of businesses that pitch products before information breeds doubt instead of trust in good products and in Focus on Energy.
Utilities are unnecessarily at odds with customers in Wisconsin because our ancient rate structures challenge utilities as energy use drops. It time our lawmakers learned about efficiency program decoupling. Bottom line: there is so much money to be saved through efficiency measures that sharing some of the revenue with utilities is a win-win.
Wisconsinites are not people who default on our commitments. We understand that a large part of electricity costs go to paying down debt on existing power plants and transmission lines. We understand that fewer units of electricity sold will mean new charges on our bills to make good on past PSC approvals. But customers will stand up when we hear that more utility debt is cost effective and customers will not take kindly to penalizing measures like efficiency, home solar and load management – our tools to aggressively cut CO2.
As electric customers we are allowing our dollars to be burned up on both ends. We do not have “all of the above” resources to fund expansion and right-sizing at the same time. Dollars that go towards utility expansion and high interest debt, directly subtract from those that flow to customers as renters, home owners, businesses owners, neighborhoods and communities. All growth is not equal or necessarily good. We only have one planet; we do have the power to size up our demands.
Wasteful. Unnecessary. Overbuilt.
These words describe the Cardinal Hickory Creek transmission proposal. Three capital sins.
I've always said the state of Wisconsin is the body and we are the beauty. Scenic beauty and good people make Wisconsin a good place to visit. Tourists take this experience home with them and come back. I pray wisdom is used to bring justice to this area of Wisconsin.
Numbers make a difference, so I call on Madison and the metro area to take on a challenge. In an orderly way, organize a march on the state Capitol in opposition of the Cardinal Hickory Creek transmission line. Show unity to our new governor. It will take leadership and determination to succeed. Good luck.
As the Senegalese ecologist Baba Dioum said, "In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."
-Patrick L. Patterson, Mount Hope
Harnessing Our Local
Meeting Our Priorities with Household and Local Solutions
Shortfalls in Transmission Review Process and Busting Utility Myths
Confronting the Harmful Land and Economic Impacts of Transmission Expansion
Trustee, Village of Montfort, WI
StopPATH WV, Shepherdstown, WV
Participation, Politics, and Public Opinion
Driftless Area Land Conservancy, Dodgeville, WI
Protecting the Natural Habitats and Local Economies of the Driftless Area from Unnecessary Transmission Expansion
Powers Engineering, San Diego, CA
Local-Based Energy Futures and the Obstacle of Transmission Expansion
The grid to nowhere
An argument against building giant transmission lines
BY MICHAEL LENEHAN
MARCH 1, 2018
Cartoon by Ken Stark. Used with permission of the artist.