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Candidates Queried on Energy Issues
Senator Herb Kohl retires in January after serving since 1989. Tuesday, November 6, Wisconsin voters will choose either Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D–Madison) or Republican former Governor Tommy Thompson to succeed him. Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News asked the candidates four energy-related questions. Here are those questions, and their answers:
WECN: The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has played a prominent economic development role in rural communities. In recent years energy/environmental policies have resulted in restrictions on RUS lending, while ongoing federal budget issues have brought calls for the agency’s elimination. Do you see a continuing mission for the RUS?
Thompson: In a time of budget constraints, we must examine every dollar spent. RUS has provided a great value-driven service to rural communities, but I’m troubled by charges of wasteful spending in the program as it relates to recent stimulus-related expenditures. We should continually examine ways to maximize the organization of RUS so that it provides the most cost-effective benefit for consumers.
Baldwin: Providing reliable, affordable electricity is essential to Wisconsin’s economic well-being. Part of ensuring our rural communities compete and thrive in the 21st century requires investing in rural infrastructure. The best example is USDA’s Rural Utilities Service. This highly successful public-private partnership ensures Wisconsin rural communities are able to access financing to modernize and maintain critical infrastructure needs.
Not only does RUS provide financing for infrastructure investments, it provides a return on investment to the taxpayer. In 2013, the USDA estimates that due to loan repayments, the RUS program will reduce the federal deficit by more than $300 million. I will continue to fight misguided attempts to weaken or eliminate the RUS program.
WECN: Consolidation of freight railroads has left many businesses and industries without competitive shipping alternatives and exposed to take-it-or-leave-it rate increases. This includes electric power producers paying more to have coal delivered than they pay for the coal itself. Energy consumers feel the impact. Electric cooperatives have advocated regulatory reforms such as ending the railroads’ exemption from antitrust law. What would you regard as a reasonable solution that would protect energy consumers?
Thompson: I agree, we must explore all options that reform regulatory burdens and lower costs to producers and consumers.
Baldwin: Over the years, I have teamed with Senator Herb Kohl and Republicans in Congress to remove the freight rail industry’s exemption from antitrust laws. Our legislation, the Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act, would remove an unfair and anticompetitive exemption that costs businesses and consumers millions in higher prices every year.
Today, four railroads control nearly 95 percent of the industry in terms of revenue and 90 percent of track miles. This has left many areas served by only one carrier, meaning businesses, utilities, and farmers are left without alternatives.
The lack of competition has allowed freight railroads to reap record profits—while providing unreliable service and charging exorbitant fees. Utilities, paper mills, and the agricultural sector have been subject to declining service, unreliable shipments, and unreasonably high costs. The Railroad Antitrust Enforcement Act would repeal the exemption so railroads are subject to the same antitrust laws other sectors abide by.
WECN: Talk of achieving energy independence has long been part of the American political discussion. If it’s possible to achieve this goal, it will be done only by fully exploiting the varied resources available in North America, possibly including resources or technologies yet to be discovered. What do you see as the appropriate role of the federal government in domestic energy development?
Thompson: We must pursue an all-in approach to energy production, including domestic exploration for coal, oil, and natural gas. Government regulations should not be hostile to energy production and exploration and the federal government should look to remove unnecessary and costly barriers that exist and prevent our country from recognizing not only the financial benefit of energy independence, but also the multiplier effect by providing opportunity for exponential manufacturing growth.
Baldwin: Ensuring affordable and reliable energy supplies means we need to invest in an all-of-the-above energy strategy. Traditional sources of energy need to move forward along with newer, cleaner sources of energy. For states like Wisconsin that are dependent on coal for energy production, we must pursue new technologies to capture and store carbon pollution that damages our environment. All these approaches are necessary to move us forward on a path toward energy independence.
The federal government also has a role in ensuring American energy manufacturers are competing on a level playing field. The Chinese government is illegally subsidizing their solar panel manufacturers, allowing them to dump cheap subsided solar panels into the U.S. market. I’ve taken on China’s cheating and have fought to make sure the Department of Commerce levels import tariffs on these cheap Chinese imports. I will continue to stand up for Wisconsin manufacturers to help level the playing field because I want to see solar panels that say “Made in Wisconsin” not “Imported from China.”
WECN: Since the Clean Air Act became law in 1970, all of its enumerated pollutants have been reduced by large percentages and America’s air quality has dramatically improved. Now, pending and recently enacted regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency are adding very large costs that will be borne by energy consumers, in order to control smaller percentages of the remaining pollution. Is there a point at which we may reasonably conclude that the quality of our environment is sufficiently protected to allow for balanced consideration of the affordability and reliability of energy supplies?
Thompson: The EPA has consistently overstepped its authority when enforcing regulations. Setting environmental policy is the job of the U.S. Congress and not the job of the bureaucrats at the EPA. We should resist burdensome regulations that could have a devastating economic effect on Wisconsin businesses and energy providers.
Baldwin: I firmly believe it is possible to protect public health, preserve Wisconsin's natural resources, and give electric utilities the certainty they need to plan for future growth. Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has reduced toxic pollutants by more than 70 percent while at the same time the economy has grown by over 200 percent.
I believe Congress has the role to ensure our nation’s laws, including the Clean Air Act, are implemented in a common-sense manner. That’s why I’ve spoken up and pushed back when I believe there is an unreasonable regulation coming out of Washington. I teamed with Republicans in the House of Representatives to fight for common-sense coal-ash regulations. Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal, which has beneficial reuses when properly recycled.
Wisconsin regulations for disposal of coal combustion wastes are viewed as the gold standard across this country. Additionally, these state standards have driven recycling rates in Wisconsin to the highest in the country.
After much deliberation and bipartisan compromise, we were able to craft a bill that for the first time set out federal standards, enforceable at the state level, for safe disposal of coal ash. I strongly supported this bipartisan legislation, along with the entire Wisconsin congressional delegation, when it was considered in the House of Representatives.
For 70 years, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) has represented America’s electric co-ops, fighting to keep electricity affordable, reliable, and safe, and improve the rural quality of life. But over the past half-century, the scope of its work has reached far beyond U.S. borders.
On Nov. 1, 1962, NRECA and the U.S. Agency for International Development—then a relatively new federal agency set up “to assist people overseas struggling to make a better life” (and resist communist expansion)—formed a partnership to carry the successful U.S. electric co-op model to distant lands.
In the ensuing 50 years, with the support of more than 300 NRECA member co-ops, NRECA International Programs has spearheaded electrification projects that have resulted in increased agricultural productivity, millions of new jobs, and enhanced quality of life for more than 100 million people in 40-plus nations.
“No group has more experience bringing low-cost power to far-flung communities than America’s electric co-ops,” NRECA CEO Glenn English remarked.
One of the first projects in the late 1960s took NRECA experts to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The cooperative they formed there grew rapidly and has emerged as the world’s largest electric co-op, with more than 450,000 members. To date, at least 25 percent of the Bolivian distribution system development has been supported by NRECA International Programs funding and expertise.
“One village at a time…”
As NRECA International Programs began branching out, it adopted a slogan: “Electrifying the world . . . one village at a time.” A 1977 pilot study in Bangladesh led to the establishment of 70 co-ops that now distribute power to 45 million rural residents.
When an NRECA team arrived in the Philippines 40 years ago, 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas with less than 10 percent receiving central station electric service. Today, 78 percent of the South Pacific nation’s dwellings have power, and 119 rural co-ops now serve 40 million consumers.
A number of other projects have been equally successful, pointed out Dan Waddle, senior vice president of NRECA International Programs. “The four electric co-ops in Costa Rica represent approximately 15 percent of the total electric distribution market and cover roughly 40 percent of rural areas in that country. They are completely self-sustaining and have expanded the scope and range of their offerings. Costa Ricans are gung-ho for democracy, so they really embrace co-ops.”
Partnerships, Guidance, Volunteers
NRECA International Programs is made up of two arms. The International Foundation, founded in 1985, partners with electric co-ops in the United States to provide funding, equipment, and volunteer personnel to assist foreign electric co-ops. Meanwhile, NRECA International, Ltd., provides guidance to newly formed co-ops during initial stages of operation and offers technical help to those that have difficulties achieving sustainable operation. The organization operates offices in nine countries, with electrification projects in 13: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Yemen.
NRECA International Foundation recruits co-op volunteers—usually line technicians, CEOs, and engineers—to send on two- to three-week assignments. While overseas, line technicians build distribution systems, wire houses, and train native line crews to work more productively and safely. Co-op managers educate administrators and board members, while engineers guide their counterparts in line design and substation construction and maintenance.
In addition, the Foundation oversees four donation programs. Dozens of co-ops contribute monetarily, while others turn over used line trucks and distribution equipment.
The Road Ahead
Political strife more than infrastructure hardships makes Third World electrification increasingly difficult. “Our biggest concern right now is security and the safety of our personnel. Afghanistan, South Sudan, Uganda, and Pakistan all experience severe peace-and-order problems.”
Of course, social upheaval, economic instability, and physical danger have always lurked on the periphery of NRECA International Programs endeavors. But its dedicated contingent has never let that get in the way. They’ve negotiated with government officials, unearthed financial resources, and made sure indigenous workers and American electric co-op volunteers stay safe.
As he looks five years out, Waddle expects Africa to occupy much of his section’s attention. In Uganda, for instance, only 9 percent of the population has access to electricity, and in rural areas, it’s much lower.
“The needs on the continent are immense, and the situation is grim. There are two key issues: food security and water. Electricity plays a big role in both.”—Frank K. Gallant
A version of this story originally appeared in RE Magazine
During a legislative hearing in the 1980s, Chuck Van Sickle (assisted by Eau Claire Energy CEO John Luehrsen) brings out one of his favorite props: a map to show lawmakers the far-flung service territories of Wisconsin’s electric co-ops.
Seems like political campaigns these days will latch onto just about anything that will portray an opponent in a less-than-favorable light, and attempting to align election opponents with “special interests” is among the more common tactics. Heaven forbid that a candidate might have worked at one time or another as a registered “lobbyist” for one of those interest groups, since there’s a presumption—cultivated by campaign strategists seeking any advantage possible—that such a job title automatically denotes dishonest dealing and illicit lining of pockets.
That’s an unfair stretch. “Lobbyist” is not a dirty word. Businesses, associations, and consumer groups of all types, and all political persuasions, hire knowledgeable individuals to help them influence the course of government actions that relate to their core interests—make that “special interests.” Having one’s views expertly represented before legislative, regulatory, and judicial bodies is essential to—and guaranteed by—our democracy; lobbyists become our voice, and in some cases they become the face of our organizations in dealings with government.
Best Face Forward
By all accounts, Charles “Chuck” Van Sickle was the best face Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives could have possibly put on their industry. (See obituary on next page.) For more than 25 years the Madison attorney educated state lawmakers on the workings of cooperatively owned utilities. Working closely with members of both political parties, he drafted and shepherded bills through both houses of the Wisconsin legislature. When legislation or regulations potentially harmful to co-op operations surfaced, Chuck worked tirelessly to try and persuade state officials to set them aside or make needed alterations.
He might not have always won such arguments, but his honesty, professionalism, and friendliness drew respect from friends and adversaries alike. At one point, state lawmakers were asked by a newspaper to rate Capitol lobbyists, and they picked Chuck as one of the 10 best among hundreds registered.
“He was the essence of a good lobbyist—well-informed, never pushy, thoughtful, and hard-working,” said Brian Rude, who, as a member of the Wisconsin Legislature for 18 years representing districts that contained electric co-op service areas, saw Chuck Van Sickle in action repeatedly. Following his legislative service, Rude went to work for Dairyland Power Cooperative, a move he credits, in part, to Chuck. “He was a role model and part of the reason I had such a terrific relationship with the cooperatives that led me to coming here,” he said.
Atop the List
As a soon-to-be-unemployed State Senate staffer in 1979, I was sending off a job application to an outfit called the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association, and I sought out the organization’s lobbyist to give me a flavor of what electric co-ops were all about. Chuck Van Sickle told me then—as I subsequently heard him tell countless people over the following 33 years—the people he represented were the “guys in the white hats” and the “salt of the earth.”
Among the resolutions considered annually by those electric co-op leaders Chuck so fondly described, there’s a general memorial to friends of the program who died during the previous year, acknowledging the contributions made during their lifetimes, the examples they set, and the debt owed to them. For me and many others he befriended, helped, and touched, Chuck tops the list.
The holiday season is right around the corner, and for Norwegians
everywhere—whether by heritage or
in spirit only—that means it’s almost
lefse time! Lefse, a traditional potatobased
flatbread, is a year-round treat,
although it’s typically rolled out in
force during the holiday season.
In Wisconsin, there’s no shortage
of lefse around the holidays.
Norwegians settled in this state in
large numbers back in the mid-1800s,
establishing traditions that are still
going strong today. You don’t have to
travel far to find a church or community
center serving up a helping of lefse
in November and December.
If your love of lefse is such
that you’d prefer to make it yourself,
however, you’re in luck. You can, of
course, tackle the time-intensive procedure
on your own, with the help of
a recipe or step-by-step instructions
found online, but there’s a better way.
You can gather up some friends
and family and take a scenic drive
along the Wisconsin Great River Road
to Fountain City to take lessons from
The Lefse Lady.
Otherwise known as Gwen Katula, the
is the owner/
Lefse Time, a
shop that carries just
about everything you could
possibly need to make lefse. Included
in the shop is a kitchen where Katula
teaches lefse-making to people from
all over the state and beyond. Cooks of
all kinds—novices, experts, and every
step in between—come to Katula for
a three-hour session on the eight-step
lefse-making process, resulting in a
hearty helping of homemade lefse for
each cook to take home.
However, Katula’s visitors get
much more from her classes than
a container of lefse. Her goal is for
guests to leave with a renewed sense
of connection—to their heritage, to
their families and friends, and to the
traditions that link them all.
When she launched Lefse Time
nine years ago, Katula said her main
goal was to keep the lefse tradition
alive. At first it was simply a web-based business providing lefse lovers
with a place to purchase hard-to-find
lefse tools. The site also offered recipes,
step-by-step picture instructions,
and a how-to video.
Noting that most people’s love of
lefse is driven as much by memories
and emotions as it is by taste, Katula
also made a place on the website for
people to share their lefse stories.
Customer participation still drives
the website; people turn here to share
their lefse memories, pictures, and
recipes as well as to shop. Eventually
Katula opened an on-site gift shop to
accompany the website, branching into
Scandinavian gift items.
About four years ago, Katula
expanded Lefse Time again by adding
the kitchen for lefse-making classes.
Katula holds regularly scheduled
classes twice a month from September
through December, but groups of at
least two people are welcome to schedule
a private class at any time.
These customized classes have
ranged from entire families spending
an afternoon making lefse for their
holiday celebrations to girlfriends
gathering for an evening of wine,
cheese, laughter, and lefse. Families
have come for classes in every possible
combination, from husbands and wives to grandmothers with grandsons. No
experience is required, and all equipment
and supplies are provided.
Lefse-making is made easy and
fun at Lefse Time, but if you’d rather
not spend a few hours preparing your
own potato flatbread, you can always
turn to another Wisconsin lefsededicated
business, Countryside Lefse
in Blair. This family-owned business
turns out authentic, hand-rolled lefse
that can be shipped fresh to your door.
With these options, it’s simple to
celebrate the holidays in Norwegian
style. It’s lefse time!—Mary Erickson
Lefse Time is located at 115 North Shore,
Fountain City, WI 54629. It’s open April
through December from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
every day except Tuesday and Wednesday
(closed November 22 and December 24).
Lefse-making classes are offered November
4 and 7 and December 9 and 12. To reserve a
class or set up a private class, contact Lefse
Time at 800-687-2058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, visit www.lefsetime.com.
Contact Countryside Lefse in Blair by calling
1-800-584-6789 or visiting www.lefse.com.