From a commentary by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin, July 12, 2009:

In a unanimous vote, the Public Service Commission (PSC) recently cleared the way for Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin utility to construct a 200 megawatt (MW) windpower plant project in southern Minnesota. Once operational, the Bent Tree project, costing upwards of $450 million, will be a productive source of renewable energy that will provide lasting benefits to Minnesota’s economy and environment. Since it will be Alliant’s Wisconsin customers who foot the bill, however, it is reasonable to inquire whether the current utility practice of outsourcing renewable energy production to other states is a good thing for Wisconsin’s economy.

Because we can’t see it, taste it, hear it or smell it, we tend to lose sight of the fact that electricity is a manufactured product. To make it, capital is amassed and expended on machinery that convert raw resources like coal, flowing water, and wind into this highly useful form of energy. The electricity is then transported via networks of wires to power factories, illuminate residences and streets, propel commuter trains, and energize the complex communications systems that allows to store vast quantities of instantly retrievable information. It is hard to name a manufactured product that adds more value to an industrialized society than electricity.

Yet electricity’s impact on the economy is not defined solely by the activities it supports. There is as well the intense amount of economic activity that goes into building the power plants themselves. In the case of Bent Tree, the capital used to manufacture, transport and erect 122 wind turbines will unleash a year-long burst of construction work in Freeborn County employing hundreds of skilled laborers and technicians. The work will also ripple through nearby component manufacturers involved with the project, as well as ports and other transfer points where components are unloaded and loaded onto special vehicles and hauled to the project zone. . . .

If Wisconsin truly desires to provide a home to a viable renewable energy economy, it will have to redefine the public interest standards that govern the expenditure of ratepayer dollars. This means giving such economic benefits as job creation, component manufacturing, workforce participation, increased tax receipts to local and state government, and reduced dependence on future transmission upgrades as much due consideration as cost per megawatt-hour. Granted, this is a form of industrial policy. However, if state policymakers don’t take steps to build a solid market structure for generating more renewable electricity here at home, Wisconsin’s ability to compete for good jobs and business opportunities could become hopelessly compromised.