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The Carbon Challenge

Electric companies explain their efforts to ease off fossil fuels

Fresh air on a peninsula surrounded by water is just one of the attractions for residents and visitors to Door County.

But when it comes to electricity sources, the county relies heavily on coal and fossil fuels burned elsewhere.

Wisconsin Public Service’s (WPS) March 2024 Greenhouse Gas report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that the percentage of energy generated or purchased for WPS customers that came from coal declined to 35.7% during 2023. However, less-polluting natural-gas-powered generation increased to 47%. 

Those figures kept WPS’s carbon-based energy sources at 83% in 2023, the same as in 2022, when 41% of the WPS mix came from coal and 42% from natural gas. 

In 2020, 87.6% of WPS electricity came from coal or natural gas.

The amount of carbon emitted through production for WPS and through purchased power declined only slightly from 1,211 pounds per megawatt-hour in 2022 to 1,152 lbs/MWh in 2023, according to the March 2024 report. 

So far, WPS is shrinking its carbon footprint, in part, by retiring old coal plants and switching some of the more efficient coal-burning plants, such as Weston 4 near Wausau, to less-polluting natural gas.

WEC Energy Group, WPS’s parent company, will exit coal as a fuel source by the end of 2032, said Matt Cullen, WPS spokesman.

“We are well on our way to meeting our aggressive carbon emissions goals,” Cullen said, adding that the goals include reducing carbon emissions 80% below 2005 levels by the end of 2030, and becoming net carbon-neutral by 2050.

Door County resident Roy Thilly, a former WPPI Energy (formerly Wisconsin Public Power) president and chief executive who now serves as co-chair of the Climate Change Coalition of Door County (CCC), said it takes about 10 years to get permits to build a coal-burning plant – and no one knows what those regulations will be 10 years from now, and nobody’s trying to build one. 

Still, he said, at the present time, companies “cannot keep the lights on today without gas-fired generation, or coal. The more coal gets retired, the more you need gas.”

Nuclear Power

Both Thilly and Sturgeon Bay Utilities (SBU) General Manager Jim Stawicki said nuclear energy helps to provide carbon-free energy when sources such as solar are not generating electricity. WPS increased its carbon footprint when Dominion Energy closed the nuclear power plant at Kewaunee in 2013, and currently has no nuclear energy in its EPA greenhouse-gas report.

Sturgeon Bay Utilities customers – and 50 other municipal power entities statewide in WPPI Energy – receive 20% of their generation mix from the Point Beach nuclear power plant north of Two Rivers, said Stawicki, who also serves as Energy Chair for WPPI.  

NextEra Energy owns that nuclear power plant, and the utility-scale Point Beach solar farm that sells electricity to WPPI and other customers.

No new nuclear-power utilities were constructed in the United States between 1980 and 2013, and a plant that opened in Georgia in 2013 was the first in seven years. Stawicki said he sees promising advancements in nuclear-power generation, such as some 300-MW “small modular reactors” with about a third of the capacity of traditional nuclear plants.

WPPI Energy (Wisconsin Public Power), which includes Sturgeon Bay Utilities and 50 others, has increased its use of renewable energy to 24% of its generation mix. Source: WPPI Annual Report.

Wind, Solar and Hydroelectric Energy

The percentage of wind, solar and hydroelectric electricity generated or purchased for WPS customers in 2023 remained about the same as in 2022 – 4.4% from wind, 3.6% from solar and 8.8% from water power.

That is changing, Cullen said, with WEC Energy Group expanding use of wind power and building some of the biggest solar-based generating stations in the state – such as a 300-megawatt (MW) facility in Iowa County that fully opened in December 2023, and similar-sized solar parks in Kenosha, Dane and Walworth counties. Each of those will have between 200 and 300 MW capacity in solar generation, plus battery storage to provide power from sunshine after sunset.

Cullen said WPS has a goal to use the solar and wind power for its energy baseload. A Microsoft data center near Milwaukee in the Interstate 94 corridor will have an enormous demand for energy. Cullen said WEC is constructing a 1,200-MW, natural-gas-burning plant in anticipation of new federal clean-air rules and to ensure reliable service to that I-94 corridor, which includes Microsoft.

“While Microsoft’s plans are a significant component of this growth,” Cullen said, “the new facilities will be used to serve all of our customers. They will be used to provide critical power during times of peak demand for energy from all our customers.”

For practical and economic purposes, electric companies and cooperatives nationwide cannot rely entirely on resources such as wind and solar, Stawicki said. Utilities need to deliver reliable electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

“Wind and solar are intermittent,” Thilly said. “A utility needs to match the generation it needs on a second-by-second basis.”

Overall, it’s a balancing act for utilities, Stawicki said.

“It’s a three-legged stool for us,” Stawicki said. “It’s reliability, affordability and sustainability. All three components have to work. We could put ourselves out of the market of our customers, too.”