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A milestone in distributed generation was reached Oct. 15 when Gundersen Health System, a health care provider headquartered in La Crosse, produced more energy that day — heat, cooling and electricity — than was used throughout its facilities. In doing so, Gundersen became the first health care network in the nation to achieve this level of energy self-sufficiency.

Reaching its audacious energy goal took six years, $30 million of its own capital, and $11 million in federal and state grants. Gundersen proceeded along several parallel paths: conservation and efficiency measures on new and existing buildings; ground-based heating and cooling; and a constellation of clean energy-producing facilities scattered across southwest Wisconsin.

What makes this achievement even more impressive Badger-Coulee catalyst

for renewable energyis that Gundersen built two new clinics during this time and expanded its square footage by 25 percent.

But while Gundersen now produces as much electricity as it consumes, it hasn’t disconnected any of its facilities from the electric grid. That’s because its generation sources are designed to supply energy to the grid, not to the buildings themselves. Thus, its definition of energy independence presupposes reliance on utility-supplied electricity, wherever it is generated. Perhaps 100 percent net zero energy is a better way to characterize Gundersen’s remarkable accomplishment.

It turns out that La Crosse is also the launching point for a proposed new transmission line that would, if approved, connect south-central Wisconsin directly to wind energy-rich areas in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Called Badger-Coulee, the new line would help complete a regional backbone for the upper Midwest and alleviate pockets of congestion that limit the expansion of wind power, which is now the least expensive electricity generation option in the region.

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The rapid growth of wind generation to our west may surprise Wisconsin citizens. Wind power now accounts for nearly 30 percent of the electricity produced in Iowa. Not far behind is Minnesota, where wind turbines produce 16 percent of the Gopher State’s supply of electricity. Regionwide, wind contributes between 6 and 7 percent to the electricity market. But it will be a challenge to accommodate more high-value wind projects beyond those currently under construction without new high-voltage lines to move the power around.

Wind power’s emergence can be traced to a combination of attributes that no other regionally available fossil fuel or renewable energy resource can provide. Unlike coal, it does not release carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere, requiring environmental upgrades that drive electric rates higher. Unlike natural gas, wind does not have a historically volatile fuel cost, which enables utilities to lock in a low-cost energy source over its entire operating life. And, unlike solar and biogas, wind energy can be inexpensively produced in bulk, and transported around a region as extensive as the upper Midwest.

Given the lack of policy support for further renewable energy development in Wisconsin, reducing electric bills in this state will require an expansion of wind-power generation regionwide, which Badger-Coulee is specifically designed to accommodate. Fortunately for Wisconsin customers, Badger-Coulee qualifies as a “multivalue project,” because it advances the twin aims of strengthened reliability and increased access to low-cost wind. As such, the cost of its construction is spread broadly across the upper Midwest transmission system, even though it is located entirely within one state. Indeed, fully 85 percent of Badger-Coulee’s estimated price tag ($540 million to $580 million) will be picked up by customers outside of Wisconsin.

Regional supplies of clean energy will also lock in the emissions reductions that will arise with anticipated closures of nearby coal-fired power plants. Several older generating stations along the Mississippi River — most notably Alliant Energy’s 50-year-old Nelson Dewey plant in Cassville and Dairyland Power’s 55-year-old units in Alma — will cease operations next year.

Gundersen’s commitment to clean energy is nothing short of inspiring, and hopefully other businesses will step up to the plate. But to replace shuttered utility-owned power plants on a one-for-one basis with cleaner sources, we will need access to regional wind, as well as local distributed generation and energy conservation. Fortunately, the regional system operator planned for this transition to cleaner energy sources, and, if Badger-Coulee is approved, Wisconsin will more effectively capture the economic benefits from wind-power development in the Midwest.

Regional transmission upgrades and local clean energy initiatives can — and should — proceed hand in hand.

Michael Vickerman is program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin, a statewide renewable energy advocacy organization.

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(10) comments

cinnabar

Where did Mr Vickerman come from, "out of the blue"? There have been experts frequently quoted in the media regarding this matter & his name is not familiar. Is he being paid by ATC?

I vote "no".

Cinnabar

CarolOverland

How much transmission promotion funding is RENEW, Clean Wisconsin,and others like BC Minnesota intervenors MCEA, Izaak Walton League, Fresh Energy, Wind on the Wires, get from RE-AMP sources, Energy Foundation, to promote utility interests? What do those funding agreements say about transmission promotion? Disclose that information! Anyone with basic knowledge of geography, coal plants, and the IL and IN MISO queue know that this is NOT about "renewable" and is all about keeping those ND coal plants chugging along. This can only hurt "renewable" development in the destination areas, and can only help market coal eastward. The CapX and MVP transmission build-out is exactly what I warned you about back in ... what... 2002, at that St. Paul SEED meeting, that was the plan then, to co-opt "environmental" organizations. And here you all are, advocating for the project, talking utility party line. SHAME! But that's what those grants are for...

Goose

This guy is so full of baloney, I don't know how he looks at himself in the mirror.

Farmwife

I do wish Mr. Vickerman would do his homework instead of just saying what The American Transmission Company wants him to say. Luckily most people are able to see through the empty and inaccurate words he writes.

Tom Wilson

I have been an ardent promoter of renewable energy for nearly 50 years (I was chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Association way back in the 1970s), but I couldn't disagree with Michael more than I do on this. The Badger Coulee line is not about supporting renewables, but rather cementing in place for decades to come the hegemony of the central investor-owned utility model drawing resources away from our own local efficiency and renewable energy programs so Xcel can sell us supposedly "clean" energy from flooded Cree hunting lands in Canada and their own monster wind farms in North Dakota....oh, yes, did I mention there is a lot of shale oil up there too to generate electricity? RENEW Wisconsin is WRONG WRONG WRONG . Equating Gunderson's own home-grown efficiency and renewable efforts with this massive powerline infrastructure boondoggle is simply deceitful. I will never support RENEW Wisconsin again.

gowisconsin

(from http://www.renewwisconsin.org/about/business3.htm)
RENEW Wisconsin Business Members
Platinum Sponsors: American Transmission Company, LLC
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
Mr Vickerman, how much do you and RENEW stand to lose if you should say anything in opposition to ATC projects? "Platinum" is your highest level of membership. You should DISCLOSE this financial bias on the numerous articles you send to Wisconsin newspapers. You mislead people in thinking that these high voltage lines are the way of the future for clean energy.

You are not truthfully educating people on the researched evidence on these lines and the solid alternatives to transmission. People deserve better.

gowisconsin

Mr Vickerman says "it will be a challenge to accommodate more high-value wind projects beyond those currently under construction without new high-voltage lines to move the power around."

Does that mean that the Midwest needs to be plastered with an ENDLESS number of high voltage lines so that we can move the wind power around? Should we tear up farms, reduce property values, and harm endless miles of natural space to erect these lines?

There is expert engineer testimony submitted to PSC that shows the need for these lines has not been shown and that ATC submitted biased information on the trends of load growth when they applied for the Badger Coulee line.Non-transmission alternatives of load management, energy efficiency, and local solar projects could cost Wisconsin $200 million compared to the $837 million WI pricetag for Badger Coulee, Cardinal Hickory Creek, & 15 other high voltage lines outside WI.

ACT gives a great deal of funding to "RENEW".

Shameful that RENEW writes this!

tuftedt

Unfortunately, American Transmission Company is holding Michael Vickerman’s family hostage in a horrible, spidery basement. I feel very badly for him. He is being forced to speak easily debunked un-truths the Utilites are hoping we will blindly adopt. Let me simply quote from the national recognized electrical engineering firm testifying for this case, Powers Engineering: “ Energy efficiency and solar energy sector companies…are often based locally, such as installation and maintenance of energy systems or solar panels. Local clean energy economic activity will not be generated in Wisconsin by the construction of the Badger Coulee line….Imported clean energy, to the extent that it is used in Wisconsin, will displace the economic activity that would other wise have occurred in Wisconsin to provide the clean energy.

tuftedt

Unfortunately, American Transmission Company is holding Michael Vickerman’s family hostage in a horrible, spidery basement. I feel very badly for his family. He is being forced to speak easily debunked un-truths the Utilites and ATC are hoping we will blindly adopt. Let me simply quote from the national recognized electrical engineering firm testifying for ratepayers in this case: Powers Engineering: “ Energy efficiency and solar energy sector companies…are often based locally, such as installation and maintenance of energy systems or solar panels. Local clean energy economic activity will not be generated in Wisconsin by the construction of the Badger Coulee line….Imported clean energy, to the extent that it is used in Wisconsin, will displace the economic activity that would other wise have occurred in Wisconsin to provide the clean energy.

Positive Energy

ATC is a platinum sponsor of RENEW. http://www.renewwisconsin.org/about/business2.htm

Vickerman: "..it will be a challenge to accommodate more high-value wind projects"

We must look for results: CO2 reductions and effectiveness of our renewable energy dollars. Utility planning with Badger Coulee assumes CO2 emissions would increase an average of 2.6% per year--even with Vickerman's wind expansion scenario.

Vickerman: "..fully 85 percent of Badger-Coulee’s ..[would] be picked up by customers outside of Wisconsin."

Response: WI electric customers would pay for the lines built in other states-- more than $4 billion over the next 40 years including the interests associated with transmission debt. Engineer experts for SOUL have shown that No WIRE alternatives using efficiency, distributed solar & load management have a _total_ cost of no more $19 million .These are renewable solutions that address the same _potential_ need that Badger Coulee assumes after 2023. Rob Danielson SOUL

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