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Wind turbines dot farm fields in western Iowa County, where developer Invenergy wants to install a 300-megawatt solar farm.

Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin are pushing legislation to form a new state development authority designed to kick-start the state’s clean energy economy.

The bill, introduced last week by Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, would create a Wisconsin Renewable Energy Development Authority (WREDA), which would be authorized to issue grants and loans to state-based businesses or residents engaged in producing energy, fuels or other products from renewable resources.

Katrina Shankland

Rep. Katrina Shankland

Shankland said the idea is to help entrepreneurs create jobs in manufacturing as well as research and development and construction.

“It’s past time that we invest in renewable energy,” Shankland said. “This would really jumpstart the technology side and the financing side of things.”

The bill would appropriate an as-yet-undetermined amount and authorize WREDA to issue up to $500 million in tax-free bonds, though the state would not be on the hook for the debt.

WREDA would not be a state agency but would be subject to open records laws and state audits similar to the state’s housing and economic development authority, WHEDA.

It would be overseen by an 11-member board that would include five people appointed by the governor and the heads of several state agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

“This would be a big deal,” said Nick Hylla, executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. “This type of institution could make financing available for groups across the state that would not normally have access to financing for energy projects.”

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Hylla said WREDA would reduce interest rates and likely spur every bank and credit union in the state to make renewable energy financing available.

As the bill is written, WREDA could also support energy conservation efforts.

Shankland said WREDA would complement the state’s existing energy efficiency program, Focus on Energy. Funded with about $100 million a year in utility revenues, that program helps finance efforts to reduce waste, but only $5.5 million of that money is reserved for renewable energy projects.

The bill, similar to legislation introduced in previous sessions, has yet to attract Republican co-sponsors.

Scott Coenen, executive director of the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum, said the state would be better off looking at ways to encourage more private-sector financing.

Still, Shankland is optimistic that the threat of a warming climate and the potential to spur economic development could change the conversation.

“Climate change is continuing to worsen, and it’s going to affect our tourism economy. It’s going to affect agriculture. It’s affecting us now with flooding … It’s going to affect everybody,” Shankland said.

“If people don’t want to have that conversation, then the conversation they could have is, this is good for our economy.”

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