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June 2013 Issue

June 2013
Feature 1

Ashes to Atoms?

Feature 2

Wind Talkers

Editorial

EDITORIAL
"Similar Scenes, Subjects"

Wisconsin Favorites
Wisconsin Favorites
"Mountain of Fun"

 

 

Ashes to Atoms?

A Top Federal Energy Official Looks Ahead…WAY Ahead

 

Through the 1990s and into the past decade, a solid majority share of Wisconsin’s electric generation capacity was in coal-fired power plants, with other fuel types bringing up the rear. But by 2011, a dramatic shift was in progress. Coal plants had dropped back to 44 percent of the state’s generation mix and natural gas, only 10 years earlier a high-priced commodity with the exhaustion of domestic supplies just over the horizon, had climbed to 36 percent. Nuclear-fueled plants had slid a bit, to a 9-percent share of generation resources, with hydro, wind, and biomass trailing at 3, 3, and 2 percent respectively.

A transition from coal is most certainly underway. And while some of the energy sources now clocking in at single-digit percentages are sure to expand their shares of Wisconsin electricity usage (not necessarily the same thing as in-state electricity production), the basic energy source most likely to grow in importance for the foreseeable future looks to be gas.

Earlier this spring, the Customers First! Coalition held its annual POWER Breakfast in Madison and a packed ballroom at the Concourse Hotel took in an hour of forward thinking from Lauren Azar, former utility regulator on the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) and now senior advisor to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Azar sees natural gas as the key to Wisconsin’s energy security for a long time—but not forever.

A Bridge Built on Shale

“In the end,” Azar told the Customers First! audience, “our ability to keep our electric rates at a place where we can compete globally is at the heart of our long-term economic future here in Wisconsin.”

In the 1990s, those rates were the lowest in the Midwest, but by 1997 and ’98, so were the expectations of getting through the summer without power interruptions for major industrial customers. Now, Wisconsin rates are the highest regionally, attributable to a combination of necessary infrastructure improvements and mandated environmental upgrades.

Appointed to the PSC by then-Governor Jim Doyle in 2007, Azar recalled that early in her tenure, prospects weren’t altogether bright. “I stayed up at night because I was worried about what we were going to do for energy supply.” That was before the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in shale formations of Ohio and the Northeast, the Northern Plains, Texas, and the Mountain West, all recoverable by hydraulic fracturing. “Of course now, five years later, the landscape is entirely changed and I think everybody can breathe a sigh of relief with regards to natural gas,” Azar said.

But not for the long term, which she defines as 40 to 60 years in the future, a time frame in which it will be essential, “thinking about the global economy,” Azar says, “to figure out how to keep our electricity prices low.”

As the top advisor to the secretary of energy, Azar is at the epicenter of what she calls a “clean energy revolution,” and she makes clear what she believes that means.

“When I say ‘clean energy,’ I want everybody to understand that includes natural gas and nuclear. We [the DOE] do a lot of work on small modular reactors, research and development on that, to try to make sure that those do get deployed.”

Not Your Father’s Nukes

The timing may seem inauspicious. Within the two weeks following Azar’s Madison visit, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled a Texas nuclear project ineligible for licensing on grounds of foreign ownership; after spending some $70 million, Duke Energy dropped plans for two new nuclear units—while reportedly planning to recover the costs and even turn a profit from ratepayers; and the Virginia owners of Wisconsin’s Kewaunee plant shut it down for economic reasons, 20 years before the scheduled expiration of its operating license.

But small modular reactors (SMRs) offer advantages over the previous generation of big power plants. They cost far less than would be needed to replicate one of the large plants currently operating—perhaps $750 million compared with $5–10 billion. Built as prefabricated units, they could be added to a site as needed and they can be air-cooled instead of continuously circulating millions of gallons of water through a cooling system.

SMRs are also designed with passive safety systems, meaning the unit can shut itself down without its mechanical or electrical systems operating. The World Nuclear Association, a professional society, explains that traditional reactor safety systems depend on electrical or mechanical functions on command. But a fully passive safety design needs only physical phenomena—like convection or gravity—that operate without help from engineered components. That sort of design, the association says, would have prevented the 2011 Fukushima accident, where loss of electrical power led to loss of the plant’s cooling capacity.

Hoping to put five 180-megawatt SMRs in operation at a site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the DOE has committed to a dollar-for-dollar match with a consortium including more than a dozen generation and transmission cooperatives along with several major utilities and engineering firms with broad nuclear experience.

Commercial operation of the reactors—each one 83 feet tall and 13 feet in diameter—could begin within about nine years. Spent-fuel storage on-site is included in the design.

Ironically, the DOE-backed SMRs will occupy the site of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Clinch River Breeder Reactor, a nuclear fuel recycling project the federal government abandoned in the late 1970s.

The Alternatives

Azar sees limited means of ensuring long-term competitive electricity prices in Wisconsin. “When I look around the nation I see a number of states that have really significant native fuels for electricity generation that are inexpensive and they’re highly efficient renewable resources. In Wisconsin, not so much.”

“We’ve got biomass. As you know for fuels for biomass they’ve got to be relatively localized, and unless things have changed, it’s not cost-effective generation yet.” As for geothermal energy, it has potential in some locations. “I would be interested in talking to somebody at the commission to see how much more we could be taking advantage of geothermal and what the efficiencies are there,” Azar says.

“We’ve got some good hydro here but it’s probably not expandable because of environmental reasons,” she says, and “the efficiency of the solar here is marginal,” similar to New Jersey and Europe where solar is abundantly deployed but no match in terms of efficiency with solar in the American Southwest. “We’ve got good wind but only in very localized locations.”

Azar points out a long shot that could make an immense difference: “I just saw a map showing that one of the shale plays may come just on the eastern coastline of Wisconsin; they say they believe the shale play is under Lake Michigan and may hit the coastline. I would consider that a game-changer for Wisconsin if that’s actually true.

“Let me just tell you in other states, they’ve got shale plays, they’ve got great places for [geological] natural gas storage, they’ve got great places for compressed air storage, they’ve got fantastic solar, they’ve got good wind reserves. And when I look over the nation I actually see Wisconsin as one of the few states that doesn’t have really robust good, efficient, natural [energy] resources.”

Her bottom line: Small, modular nuclear generators look like a realistic choice for keeping power affordable and reliable.

Taking the Long View

“I worry about Wisconsin because I worry about the lack of native fuel sources,” Azar reminded the attentive Customers First! audience. “Natural gas is going to carry us a long way for many, many years, which I’m very thankful about, but for the long term we can’t count on natural gas. We need to figure out a different way to do it and it may be small modular nuclear reactors. I do not know the answer to that question; I certainly hope they take off and fly because that might be a good solution for Wisconsin. But we need to start thinking long-term here to make sure we’re globally competitive.”

Electricity is quite a bit more expensive elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe, so Wisconsin arguably is competitive on a global basis right now with its skilled work force, abundant generation, and the electric reliability problems of the late 1990s well and properly dealt with.

The job now is to see that it’s still that way 60 years down the road.—Dave Hoopman, director of regulatory affairs, Electric Division, Cooperative Network

 

 

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Wind Talkers

Pros and Cons of Wind Power

 

From commercial wind farms to backyard set-ups, the skyscraping structures with massive rotating blades have become synonymous with “going green.”

At the end of 2012, wind generated about 60,000 megawatts of electricity—enough to serve more than 15 million homes. Wind power production is booming, with output increasing leaps and bounds over the past several years.

Costs are dropping for wind power projects, although federal subsidies are still necessary for wind to compete with traditional sources of electricity generation. A January 2012 study from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reports it costs between 24 percent and 39 percent less to produce wind energy on a per‐kilowatt‐hour basis today than it did a decade ago.

As of early 2013, 50 electric co-ops either own wind turbines or buy output from wind farms, amounting to 4.3 gigawatts, or about 9 percent of the U.S. wind generating capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Like any resource, wind has pluses and minuses when it comes to generating electricity.

Intermittency Issues

Wind power development opportunities vary greatly throughout the country. It’s viable in many states, ranging from the Great Plains and Midwest to the Atlantic Coast, but is limited in the Southeast and Southwest.

Yet even in locations with strong wind resources, an active wind turbine typically only generates 30 percent to 40 percent of its “capacity factor”—the total electricity it could generate operating around the clock. A 2010 National Renewable Energy Laboratory survey found less than 1 percent of land in states like Alabama, Kentucky, and Georgia was windy enough to achieve at least 30 percent capacity factor.

Wind is also an “intermittent” fuel source. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, so electricity generation is not reliable or constant. Energy from wind usually peaks in the early morning hours of the day, when most people are still sleeping.

Intermittency means power plants fueled by coal and natural gas must act as backups so electricity continues to flow as needed when the wind isn’t blowing. Backup power sources increase the total cost of wind generation.

Storage, Transmission

As of now, technology to store power from renewable energy—so it can be used later to avoid purchasing expensive supplemental power—is still immature and expensive. Wind and other renewable energies could become more valuable as advancements in energy storage systems (batteries) are tested. (See our feature story, “Batteries ARE Included” from March 2013: www.wecnmagazine.com/2013issues/mar/mar13.html#2.)

Once the electricity is produced, moving it from a wind farm to homes can be difficult. Transmission infrastructure may not be available in areas where the wind blows best, and building new transmission lines takes time, money, and a lengthy governmental approval process. Before turbines go up, studies must be done to judge the wind’s variability in a given area. And although the sight of a tall, white wind tower may not be as intrusive as other types of power plants, environmental and economic impacts must be assessed. Will the turbine kill songbirds and bats or disrupt their migratory patterns? Will shipping routes be affected by an offshore wind farm?

Investing in local communities

The clear advantage to wind power is its “renewable” status, but there can be economic benefits, too. Fifty-three far-flung communities in Alaska served by Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, based in Anchorage, are able to harness wind and reduce their dependence on pricey diesel fuel, which led to retail electricity rates of 51 cents per kilowatt-hour, almost five times the national average.

Some rural communities are developing wind power resources to revitalize local economies. A northwestern Missouri electric co-op, noticing that its service area suffered from losing businesses and young people, discovered growth potential through renewable energy ventures. Construction of a series of wind projects spurred an economic renaissance that included biodiesel plants and new small businesses.

A similar boon sometimes occurs through local investment, as with a South Dakota venture that in 2010 garnered $16.6 million from more than 600 local investors to build the Essington Springs Wind Farm. The project was possible after the passage of the federal stimulus bill, which created the 1603 grant-in-lieu-of-tax-credits program providing a cash payment (tax grant) of up to 30 percent of qualifying project costs.

Electric Co-ops Working for You

While great strides have been made to incorporate renewable energies like wind power into America’s electricity generation portfolio, making wind work as a reliable, affordable energy source will take time. Electric cooperatives have long been on the forefront of new technologies, and they will continue to evaluate and implement renewable energy opportunities that work for their consumer-members.—Magen Howard, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

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EDITORIAL
by Perry Baird

Separated by 20 years, the two images of Wisconsin co-op leaders at work in Washington are as similar as their ongoing lobbying missions.

The landmarks and even some of the angles for getting photographs don’t seem to change too much in Washington, D.C., over time. In fact, a photo I snapped at this year’s spring legislative conference hosted by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) reminded me a lot of one I recalled taking many years ago. In both cases I was trailing electric co-op directors and staff from Wisconsin as they embarked on their day of lobbying, heading south towards the Capitol and to their meetings with members of Congress.

Recently I examined another photo from that 1993 conference, a posed shot of the 47 Wisconsin co-op leaders who attended, and it surprised me to count only seven individuals in that group who are still active in our cooperative family today. Similarly, I discovered that only two lawmakers of the present 10-member Wisconsin congressional delegation were in office and on the receiving end of those 1993 visits.

Conceived in “Crisis”

But while the personalities—and politics—might not resemble those we knew decades ago, electric co-ops, year in and year out, seem to confront the same sorts of legislative challenges to the government loan program that has supported cooperative rural electrification from its very beginnings.

At this year’s legislative conference, about 1,500 electric co-op directors and staff from across the country were reminded that 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of what’s regarded as the first nationally organized “rally” of co-op leaders to swarm Capitol Hill. The emergency 1973 mobilization followed Richard Nixon’s order to terminate lending by the Rural Electrification administration (REA, now called Rural Utilities Service, RUS), and the action by cooperative delegates ultimately helped forge a compromise that altered the loan program but preserved the government’s financial role with electric co-ops.

Held annually ever since that 1973 effort, the NRECA Legislative Conference most years has featured a lobbying mission to Congress that includes resisting some proposed cut to REA/RUS lending authority, most often part of a federal budget plan.

This Year’s Fight

This year was no exception, though for once it wasn’t the dollar amount of RUS loans that concerned electric co-op leaders. (See “News Briefs” item on adjacent page.) No, it’s a policy shift written into the budget reflecting what the current administration thinks the money should be spent on. Three-quarters of it would be earmarked for the administration’s favored solar, wind, and other renewable-energy development in its drive to cut carbon dioxide and attempt to affect climate change. If enacted, the plan would thereby diminish what’s available for the standard line construction, maintenance, and equipment purchases that rural distribution and transmission systems require to help keep electricity reliable and affordable for their members.

To their credit, Senator Baldwin and Representatives Kind, Pocan, and Ribble—responsive to concerns raised by this year’s crop of Capitol Hill visitors from Wisconsin co-ops—voiced their supportive suggestions to the appropriate congressional committees dealing with the budget proposal.

We hope the result will resemble past successes.

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After a long, chilly spring, all roads—finally—are leading to summer. A great way to greet summer, however, is to go off road—off-road biking, that is.

Also known as mountain biking, off-road biking is an activity all ages and abilities can enjoy. All you need is a durable bike built for rougher terrain, some scenic trails, and a sense of adventure. You can find all of that and more at the 9th annual Red Flint Firecracker Off Road Bike Race & Trail Run, hosted by the Chippewa Off Road Bike Association (CORBA). This weekend of off-road fun will be held at the Eau Claire Expo Center and Lowes Creek County Park in Eau Claire June 29–30.

The Red Flint Firecracker event, which features some of the best off-road bikers in the region as well as many talented local racers, is part of the Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS), billed as America’s largest state mountain bike racing series. The Firecracker, which last year drew 763 participants, is one of the best-attended events of the 12-race series. The spectator-friendly trails with their many elevated viewing areas provide a perfect opportunity for visitors to marvel at the skills of some of the area’s best mountain bikers.

However, the Firecracker is not limited to elite competitors; the multiple categories accommodate beginners as well. Instruction is available at a learn-to-race clinic offered on Saturday, before Sunday’s main event. All bikers can also familiarize themselves with the course by taking part in Saturday’s pre-trail ride.

On-site camping is available on both Friday and Saturday nights, and the weekend includes family-friendly activities like an all-you-can-eat pasta dinner and a Saturday evening bonfire. There’s even an accompanying 5K or 10K Firecracker Trail Run for runners on Saturday.

Firecracker weekend is made successful with the help of about 100 volunteers and the support of local businesses, including Eau Claire Energy Cooperative, one of the event’s sponsors. This community spirit has been driving the event since its very beginning. According to Race Director Laura Plummer, the race and CORBA evolved together in a successful effort to meet mutual needs. As Plummer explained, a local parks director was interested in bringing a WORS race to Eau Claire at the same time several local mountain-biking enthusiasts were looking to form a club. The county, she added, needed a group to take ownership of the trails before granting approval for a race, and the newly formed CORBA needed a place and a reason to build trails. As a result, the first Red Flint Firecracker Race came together in 2005; CORBA incorporated and became a non-profit organization in 2006.

Since then, CORBA has helped turn the Eau Claire area into one of the premiere off-road biking destinations in the state. The organization oversees four multi-use trails in the Eau Claire area: Hickory Ridge in Chippewa County, Otter Creek in the City of Altoona, Northwest Park in the City of Eau Claire, and Lowes Creek in Eau Claire County. All four trail systems wind through beautiful wooded scenery, with passes through creek beds, past rock formations, and along ridge lines. The four facilities offer different riding experiences, from twisting singletrack trails (approximately the width of a bike) with quick climbs and fast sections to rolling backwoods paths that circle glacial lakes. A parking pass is required for Lowes Creek Park; the rest are free. Proceeds from the Firecracker race go toward building and maintaining trails throughout the Chippewa Valley.

Guests may bring their bikes (helmets are strongly encouraged) and explore the trails on their own, or they may join CORBA’s group rides on Monday evenings at Lowes Creek County Park. These are “no-drop rides,” with bikers divided into groups according to speed. These group rides are free and open to anyone; club membership is not required.

Trails are open to off-road bikers year-round except during the spring thaw. The additional fun offered on Red Flint Firecracker weekend, however, makes summer an especially great time for an (off) road trip to Eau Claire.—Mary Erickson

The Red Flint Firecracker Off Road Bike Race and Trail Run will be held at the Eau Claire Expo Center, located south of Eau Claire, just past the intersection of Hwy. 93 and I-94, and Lowes Creek County Park, just south of Eau Claire on S. Lowes Creek Road. For more information, including registration information and a map of CORBA-sponsored trails, visit www.chippewaoffroad.org.

 

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©2013 Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News