The opinion piece below was published in the March 30, 2013 Milwaukee State Journal
A seismic shift occurred in the U.S. electric power industry this January. For the first time since the federal government began tracking new power plants, renewable energy sources – biogas, solar and wind – accounted for 100% of generating capacity added that month.
This milestone does not please fossil fuel interests, who are alarmed over the prospect of losing market share to clean energy. To reverse this trend, they have launched a national campaign involving the planting of so-called studies in selected states that falsely demonize renewable energy.
One such report, prepared by Beacon Hill Institute, a Massachusetts think tank that is openly hostile to pro-renewable energy policy, surfaced in Wisconsin last week. Like all its other reports on state energy policy, the analysis is a heavy-handed attempt to reverse-engineer data points to fit the preordained conclusion and generate the headlines that the fossil fuel interests want to see.
An objective analysis would compare the cost of complying with Wisconsin’s modest 10% standard with all the other utility projects undertaken during the same time. But Beacon Hill’s analysis studiously avoids mentioning the new coal-fired power plants and pollution controls for old coal plants that are the primary cost drivers behind recent rate increases in Wisconsin. Utilities have dedicated over $5 billion to building or upgrading coal plants since 1999, dwarfing their investments in renewable generation. But you won’t find a word about that in this report.
You also won’t find any mention of the many new jobs, businesses and manufacturers leveraged by renewable energy standards in Wisconsin and other states. These include:
• Chilton-based DVO, which has become one of the leading designers and installers of farm-based biodigester projects in the nation.
• Milwaukee-based Helios, USA, which in just three years has become a supplier of competitively priced solar electric modules.
• Broadwind, whose Manitowoc facility now fabricates towers for windpower projects throughout the Great Lakes region.
It is not difficult to inventory the growth of Wisconsin’s clean energy supply chain from the ground up and determine how much of that was driven by state policy. A more rigorous study would have done so while providing evidence to support its contention that Wisconsin’s renewable energy policy caused a net reduction of jobs. In contrast, Beacon Hill relied on black-box computer models instead of phone surveys to reach its counterintuitive results.
As an economics professor once said to me: “If you torture your models enough, they will confess to anything you want them to.”
Had this been an intellectually honest effort, the study would have credited renewable energy policies for increasing income to farmers while providing millions of dollars’ worth of property tax relief to towns and counties. But that would have risked reaching the opposite conclusion: renewable energy policies here and in neighboring states have delivered tangible economic benefits to Wisconsin.
The false picture projected by this report crumbles when compared with the reality of Iowa’s energy experience. If renewable energy is so expensive, how does Iowa manage to generate 25% of its electricity from wind power while holding its rates 20% below Wisconsin’s rates on average? It’s worth pointing out that Mid-American, Iowa’s largest electric utility, is the largest owner of wind energy projects among all U.S. utilities, yet its electric rates remain in the single digits.
Yes, the fossil fuel interests are clearly worried, and they are resorting to outright disinformation such as Beacon Hill’s Wisconsin “study” to obscure the facts. Wisconsin’s renewable energy standard has indeed been an economic success.
Notwithstanding Beacon Hill’s efforts, voters like renewable energy and want to see more solar, bioenergy and wind powering Wisconsin’s economy. According to a bipartisan January 2012 poll, over 80% of voters sampled support policies requiring that 30% of Wisconsin’s electricity come from renewable sources.
If lawmakers are sincerely interested in economic growth, they should expand the standard beyond 10%.
Michael Vickerman is program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin, a sustainable energy advocacy organization.