The Climate Corner

Keith Reopelle

Climate change is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time. In Wisconsin, scientists with the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) are documenting and projecting the impacts global warming is having and will have in the future in our state. WICCI provides us with compelling information on how climate change is affecting our lakes, rivers, forests, wildlife, ground water, agriculture, soil and human health. The WICCI Report can be found at

There are many solutions to meet this major challenge at the household, community, state, national and international levels. Much of the progress that has been made to date has been local. A great deal more can and should be done at the state and national levels.

A major opportunity for significant progress today lies with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed carbon pollution rules for power plants. Power plants are the single largest source of carbon emissions contributing to climate change in the U.S., accounting for approximately one-third of all carbon emissions. The carbon contribution of electric generation in Wisconsin is significantly higher than the national average because of our coal dependence.

Last June, the President announced a Climate Action Plan. The centerpiece of the plan is a directive to EPA to regulate for the first time carbon emissions from new and existing electric generating plants. EPA’s proposed standard for new power plants is open for comments now at: The EPA will publish a proposed standard for existing plants this June.

The President has committed the U.S. to cutting carbon emissions 17 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2020. EPA has already implemented carbon reductions for vehicles. To reach this goal, it is likely that power plants will need to cut emissions by 30 to 40 percent. This is a significant cut, but it is very doable. As discussed below, Wisconsin has a number of attractive options to do its share.

At Clean Wisconsin, our objective is to help our state achieve the reduction in carbon emissions we need to make at the lowest cost possible for consumers. We are talking to utilities about how to do that and we are finding several points of agreement on how the rules should be structured. The rules need to be flexible, making as many different compliance pathways available as possible, including increased plant efficiency, switching to lower carbon fuels, and using renewable resources and energy efficiency programs, to reach reduction goals.

While federal carbon pollution rules are critically important to addressing climate change, there are many things Wisconsin can and should do on its own now.

The place to start at the state level is with the Focus on Energy program which has been delivering carbon reductions at an extremely low cost for nearly 15 years. By increasing the Focus on Energy program’s ability to reduce electric energy use in homes, office buildings and factories, we can greatly reduce carbon emissions at the same time that we lower energy bills for homeowners and businesses. Policies that make it easier for utilities and their customers to invest in low, or no-carbon, emission renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and bioenergy systems will also deliver carbon reductions. These strategies will make eventual compliance with federal rules much easier and, importantly, enable us to do our part in addressing one of the greatest challenges of our time.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) is a highly acclaimed, non-partisan, global research organization. WRI has conducted analyses for several states on how they can comply with a carbon emission standard based on enhancing existing state standards and programs. Wisconsin is among the states WRI has completed an analysis for:

According to the WRI, Wisconsin can realize a 26 percent reduction of carbon emissions (below 2011 levels) by 2020 simply by building on existing clean energy policies, such as our renewable portfolio standard and the Focus on Energy conservation programs, and by making existing power generation more efficient. The analysis shows that if Wisconsin were to double its investment in energy efficiency, increase its renewable portfolio standard by one percent each year between 2015 and 2020 (reaching 15 percent renewables by 2020), and develop more of the state’s potential for combined heat and power facilities at industrial and municipal sites, Wisconsin’s carbon emissions can be reduced by a whopping 43 percent by 2020.

This is great news. We can reduce energy costs and carbon pollution at the same time by becoming more efficient users of electricity. Greater efficiency will enhance Wisconsin’s competitive position. Greater reliance on solar, wind and bio-energy resources will not only further reduce carbon pollution, but also will help modernize our economy and lead to cleaner air and water. The climate change impacts WICCI has identified are daunting, but Wisconsinites have the ability to take definitive action now to put us on a much more sustainable path.

The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The Corner is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at: [email protected].