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UW-La Crosse senior safety Luke Winnen, right, celebrates with teammates after his interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Dairyland Power flips switch on Wisconsin's fourth largest wind farm

Dairyland Power officials celebrated the completion of a $167 million wind farm in southwest Wisconsin Friday that is expected to provide enough energy for more than 35,000 average households.

The La Crosse-based cooperative has a 20-year contract to purchase electricity generated by 49 turbines spread over rural Lafayette County.

The 98-megawatt Quilt Block project, constructed and operated by EDP Renewables, is the state’s fourth largest wind farm and should boost Wisconsin’s wind generation capacity by about 15 percent, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but Dairyland CEO Barb Nick said the agreement fits with the cooperative’s resource diversification strategy and “is good, sound business practice.”

Wind farms require only a fraction of the staff required to operate a traditional power plant, and there are no fuel costs.

The cost of wind energy has declined dramatically as technological advances have enabled taller towers with longer blades that capture more wind, and federal tax credits have helped spur rapid growth in U.S. wind capacity, according to the EIA.

“The momentum seems to be building,” said Tyler Hueber, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a renewable energy advocacy group.

EDP Renewables, a Houston-based company that operates 41 wind farms and two solar gardens throughout North America, said the landowners hosting the turbines will receive about $23 million over the life of the project, while a state-mandated revenue sharing agreement will provide about $392,000 a year for local government in the county of 16,836 people.

As many as 250 people were involved in construction of the project, which will employ 10 full-time workers.

According to Quilt Block’s connection agreement with the Midwest grid operators, its success is dependent on two controversial high-voltage transmission lines proposed by Dairyland and other utilities: Badger Coulee, which is currently under construction between La Crosse and Madison; and Cardinal-Hickory Creek, a proposed line between Dubuque and Madison.

While opponents of those lines contend they discourage less costly energy efficiency and local renewable energy development, supporters say they are actually facilitating local projects like Quilt Block.

“That line is not only needed for wind farms in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa, it’s also opening up market opportunities for Wisconsin projects,” said Chris Kunkle, regional policy manager for Wind on the Wires, a non-profit renewable energy advocacy organization.

“I’m very glad it’s here. It’s in our footprint,” Nick said. “I’m more happy about the economics.”

With $1.6 billion in generation assets, Dairyland serves more than 258,000 customers of member cooperatives and municipal utilities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

In the past two years, the cooperative has added more than 200 megawatts of wind and solar generation capacity to its portfolio, which has traditionally been dominated by coal-fired power. Nick said the company intends to add another 100 to 150 megawatts of renewables in the near future “at the right time, right location and right price.”

Earlier this year Dairyland announced plans to build a $700 million natural gas generation plant in a partnership with Minnesota Power.

Nick said Dairyland intends to stick with its plans to reduce reliance on coal regardless of the Trump administration’s efforts to revive the flagging mining industry.

“We’re going to continue to pursue that regardless of what happens with legislation, regulation or global politics,” Nick said. “Because we think it’s just good economics, it’s sustainable, it’s what our members want.”

UW-La Crosse student athletes recognize area veterans for seventh year

They met some six decades ago, but Eugene Smithers will forever hold a special place in Robert Uhrig’s heart.

They met under unusual circumstances in the early 1950s, shortly before Halloween. Uhring, a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, was stationed at an Army hospital in Tokyo during the Korean War. Smithers was bedridden, being treated for life-threatening injuries after stepping on a landmine. A gaping hole in his side, the soldier wasn’t expected to live, but every day at 2 p.m., Uhring helped the doctors flush his wound with liters of hydrogen peroxide, leaving Smithers with a burning sensation and intense hunger.

“He’d eat like a pig,” Urhig said, yet when he helped Smithers onto a scale, they discovered the man had dropped from 250 pounds to a gaunt 100.

In November, Urhig’s mother died, but months later he witnessed the miraculous recovery of Smithers, who was was sent back to the United States. When Uhrig returned to Wisconsin in 1954, he was shocked to find a healthy Smithers at his door, having driven from Pennsylvania to visit the man who helped save his life.

“I still don’t know how he knew where I lived,” Uhrig marveled. “I think he came because he knew my mother died and I had no one to come home to ... That’s something I’ll always remember.”

Sixty-one years later, Uhrig found himself once again “living in an empty nest,” his wife having died in 2015, but he was surrounded by comrades and young civilians Saturday morning as he took his place at a table in UW-La Crosse’s Mitchell Hall Fieldhouse for the seventh annual Veterans Day Breakfast and program.

“This is real nice,” said Uhrig, who battled slick roads and three skidding incidents on the drive in from Black River Falls, determined to attend the event for the first time.

A collaboration between the Freedom Honor Flight, which just hosted its 20th flight taking veterans to Washington D.C. to visit memorials, and the UW-L Athletics Department, the Veterans Day Breakfast draws 400 to 450 veterans for a day of recognition and camaraderie. More than 150 student-athletes from 19 intercollegiate teams served the veterans and their families a hot breakfast while the UW-L Brass Quintet performed and young students from North Woods International School sang.

The event was created when Pat Stephens, organizer of the Freedom Honor Flight, approached UW-L staff hoping to create a singular event for veterans to enjoy before dispersing to their individual ceremonies at Legion and VFW posts. The Student Athletic Advisory Council took the project under its wing and has spearheaded the event for the past few years.

“This has become theirs — it’s one of the things they look forward to every year,” said Josh Buchholtz, men’s track and field coach and facilities director. “(This event) really reaches out to a lot of folks on this campus and out in the community. A lot of these folks maybe didn’t get the full celebration of what their service meant to them ... The students can see the faces of the people who served our country.”

“I have a lot of family members in the military that have served us, and this is an opportunity to help give back to them,” said senior and SAAC member Erin Butke. “(The athletes) are excited to go out and meet these people and hear their stories of what they’ve been through ... What we do for them is so little compared to what they do for us, and this lets us show appreciation in some way.”

Art Jesmer, who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, was appreciative of being served a “good meal” and having the young students sing for them.

“This is more recognition than I got when I got out of the service,” Jesmer said. “They just said, ‘Goodbye.’ Now this is recognition to us. We’re all together here — if you look around your see all the military. Some of us served only four years but a lot of us have served 20 years.”

Capt. Doug Peterson of Onalaska, a 1964 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, addressed the crowd at the close of the event. Peterson was an aviator in the U.S. Navy, flying a carrier based A-4 Skyhawk Jet attack air craft from the USS Saratoga and the USS Intrepid, and served in the Naval Reserve for 16 years. His own father served in World War II, and he recalled the blare of sirens, ringing of church bells and joyful cheers when the war ended, and how the soldiers continued to serve the community when they returned, helping with Scouts, school and church events and neighborhood projects. He also saw neighbors and relatives return with PTSD, and witnessed the lack of treatment, something he is adamant about remedying for today’s soldiers.

“Our armed forces have become the most proficient and dedicated in the world,” Peterson said. “When they return we must make sure all their needs, physical and mental, are taken care of.”

Many young military members, outfitted in fatigues, were with the retired veterans, and Peterson made sure to honor them as well.

“It’s fair to say we’re all just proud of our service no matter when, where and how we served,” Peterson said. “To all these vets here today, you can say we did our job, and when you leave here today, and in the coming days, please continue to recognize those who are currently doing so.”

Photos: UW-La Crosse student athletes recognize area veterans for seventh year

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Amid national gains and with an unpopular GOP president, Wisconsin Democrats are gaining hope

MADISON — Strong Democratic showings in elections across the country last week, rooted in the party’s ire at Republican President Donald Trump, have Democrats in Wisconsin saying maybe — just maybe — 2018 will be when their fortunes finally improve.

The response from Wisconsin Republicans? We’ve heard those predictions before, and look where we stand.

Republicans also predict their turnout and fundraising machines could help them weather a national election climate favoring Democrats, should one materialize in 2018.

Democrats won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey last week and made legislative gains there and in other states. More surprising than the winners of many of those races — Democrats were favored in both governor’s races were the margins by which Democrats won.

The results emboldened Democrats here in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker will seek a third term next November and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a second. All 99 state Assembly seats will be on the ballot, as will 17 of 33 state Senate seats.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said during Thursday’s floor debate that the results “showed a rejection of the Trump-Walker agenda.”

“The same excitement that led to a wave of Democratic victories this week is driving our recruitment efforts and grassroots organizing here in Wisconsin,” Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement.

Republicans and Democrats acknowledge much can change between now and Election Day 2018.

The electorates in New Jersey and Virginia also differ from Wisconsin. The states are more racially diverse, which traditionally benefits Democrats, and have higher rates of college degree attainment — a demographic in which Democrats have made recent gains.

Still, the degree to which Democrats outpaced expectations last week was no outlier; it matched many of the elections held earlier in 2017. It also followed a trend going back decades in which the party out of power in the White House often fares well in midterm elections.

Trump’s unpopularity could exacerbate that. The Real Clear Politics average of polls on Friday found 38.3 percent of respondents approving of Trump’s performance, with 56.9 percent disapproving.

Wisconsin GOP consultant Brian Fraley said anyone predicting a Democratic wave election in 2018 is speaking prematurely.

“But candidates would be foolish to look at what happened,” Fraley said, “and say it doesn’t matter.”

Democratic women eye runs for office

Erin Forrest, director of Emerge Wisconsin, which recruits and trains female Democratic candidates, said Trump is motivating Democratic women to consider running for office. She predicted Trump’s unpopularity will create opportunities for all Democratic candidates next year.

“Thirty percent of people will stick with” Trump, Forrest said. “That leaves 70 percent. That’s a lot to work with.”

Emerge Wisconsin operates a six-month training program for Democratic women seriously considering running for state or local office. The program is graduating 78 women in 2017, an annual record for Emerge and more than three times the typical graduating class size, Forrest said.

Sachin Chheda, a Wisconsin Democratic consultant, said opportunities for Democratic pickups in 2018 can be found in the Milwaukee suburbs — long the state’s Republican stronghold. In races Tuesday and throughout 2017, Democrats made gains in suburban districts in large metro areas.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week added to its list of target districts two Wisconsin districts that extend into suburban Milwaukee: the 1st, represented by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, and the 6th, represented by Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah.

Chheda said Democrats are hearing from plenty of potential candidates exploring runs for office, even in areas that lean Republican.

“Campaigns are getting organized to run the kinds of campaigns that can capitalize on a national wave,” Chheda said.

Fraley, a prominent Trump critic within the Wisconsin GOP, said Republicans “don’t need to embrace” Trump but need not “take potshots” at him either. Fraley added that Republicans in Wisconsin are positioned better than their counterparts in other states due to their vaunted turnout operation.

Wisconsin “Democrats have opportunity in 2018, but I am skeptical they have the ability to seize that,” Fraley said.

Vos: ‘Very few’ implications for Wisconsin

Scot Ross, director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said the glut of Democrats vying to unseat Walker shows the party’s enthusiasm about 2018.

Candidates include state Superintendent Tony Evers, former Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, and Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin also is considering a run.

In the U.S. Senate race, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, and businessman Kevin Nicholson are running for the GOP nod against Baldwin.

Ross said Democrats need the right message to motivate voters, particularly Generation X and Millennial voters.

“Democrats have to have an economic message for people younger than Baby Boomers,” Ross said.

If Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is worried about Democrats making a dent in his party’s 64-seat majority, its biggest in six decades, he’s not showing it.

Vos, R-Rochester, said Thursday that he felt Tuesday’s results have “very few” implications for 2018 elections in Wisconsin.

In the Virginia legislative elections last week, Vos said many of the Democrats that defeated GOP incumbents ran in districts that voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In Wisconsin, just three state Assembly Republicans hold seats that were carried by Clinton: Reps. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield, who’s running for state Senate next year, Jim Ott of Mequon and Todd Novak of Dodgeville.

None of the Republican-held state Senate seats that will be on the ballot in 2018 were carried by Clinton.

Vos added that Democrats predicted they would make gains in Wisconsin in the last three elections. Yet, he said, Republicans continued to fare surprisingly well.

“I don’t know what we would do any differently,” Vos said. “Our state’s economy is in a good place, our budget is balanced and we’ve had electoral success.

“I think most people in Wisconsin say: ‘Keep the pedal to the metal and keep doing what you’re doing.’”