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Fred Clark: Clean energy grows green jobs in state

While the housing market begins what will likely be a long, slow, recovery, homeowners looking to make investments in energy efficiency are providing one of the few bright spots for local contractors.

On January 30, for example, an array of area businesses will fill the basement of the West Square Building during Sustain Sauk County’s “Home Energy Savings Workshop” to meet residents looking to improve their homes and save money on energy bills in the long-term.

Meanwhile, the Clean Energy Jobs Act (AB-649), introduced last month in the legislature, promises to help boost opportunities for Sauk County workers learning new skills in home weatherization and efficiency, or starting new businesses to meet the emerging demand for solar energy systems and other renewable technologies.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act follows the recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, including setting a statewide goal of “25 by ’25.” That is, 25% of Wisconsin’s energy should come from renewable resources like wind, solar, and bio-fuels by the year 2025.

AB-649 is one of the largest pieces of stand-alone legislation the legislature will consider this year, and as you might expect, almost everyone can find something they like – or something they dislike – about it. For example, opposition is likely to be strong to a relaxation of the rules governing construction of nuclear power plants in Wisconsin. I support opening a door (or at least a window) to new nuclear power, in part because every credible report I have seen suggests we cannot meet our goals for reduction of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions without nuclear power as part of that mix.

There will undoubtedly be changes before it reaches the full Assembly, but the broad strokes in this bill send an important signal about our state priorities.

For example, you don’t have to believe in climate change to understand the benefits of moving our state and nation away from dependence on fossil fuels. Improved energy independence in Wisconsin could mean keeping much of the $16 billion we spend each year on fossil energy from leaving our state. That money could be re-circulating in our communities, helping create jobs here at home instead of going to coal fields on the other side of the country, or to oil fields on the other side of the world.

I stood one afternoon last spring looking down at the 100-foot-high pile of coal from the roof of the generator building at Alliant Energy’s Columbia Energy Center in Portage. I asked the Alliant engineers what prevented them from burning switchgrass that could be grown by farmers across the road, as opposed to coal from mines in Wyoming. Their simple answer was “price.” Alliant has been working on the engineering of burning biomass to make electricity for some time. Now they need the economics to work.

The Energy Crop Reserve Program establishes production incentives for farmers producing biomass crops that can be used to generate energy – either heat energy (displacing coal, fuel oil or natural gas), or as feedstock for producing liquid fuel such as cellulosic ethanol. AB-649 will help make domestic fuels competitive while we build a bio-mass energy industry to a scale that can be self-supporting.

Wisconsin’s forests will also make a contribution to domestic energy. Together with my colleagues on the Forestry Committee, I am drafting separate legislation that will provide state tax incentives for purchasers of bio-mass heating systems, like the ones already available at several Baraboo businesses.

AB-649 also requires utilities to step up their commitment to offering a premium buy-back rate for energy produced by their customers using renewable methods such as photovoltaic panels or wind turbines. With dependable rates for selling locally-produced energy, homeowners and farmers looking to invest in renewable energy systems can be confident of the return expected for their investment.

Becoming more energy independent, and helping our economy recover from lost building and manufacturing capacity will not occur with one stroke of a pen. But just as America proved with the “Space Race” in the 1960s, we can achieve great things in a short time when we share a goal and government and private industry work together. This is one of our most important opportunities, and it’s critical that we get it right.

Please feel free to contact my office at any time with comments or questions on this or other issues. As always, it is an honor to serve as your State Representative.