Wisconsin Electricity shortage

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Sun 4-Mar-2001

Electricity shortage Sheboygan Press

By most accounts, Wisconsin is expected to face an electricity shortage in the next decade.

The result could be all too familiar.

If more power plants and transmission lines are not built, the state could find itself in the same situation as California, said Tony Hozney, director of the office of public information at the state Department of Commerce.

Serious power shortages have caused outages and rolling blackouts in California.

How big is the shortfall?

The extent of the expected shortage depends on who you ask.

By 2010, were going to need an additional 4,000 megawatts, roughly, which is about one-third of our current use, Hozney said.

That is about equivalent to the output of eight new power plants, according to Michael John, manager of media communications for the Wisconsin Energy Corp., which agrees with the departments estimates.

A megawatt is one million watts and is enough to meet the electrical needs of 200 households.

The Commerce Department, which works with businesses, based its estimates on a growth rate of 3.5 percent per year.

However, the Public Service Commission, an independent agency that regulates utilities, says the shortfall is closer to about 2,673 megawatts.

The PSC estimate is based on a growth rate of only 2 percent per year and factors in two plants which went online in 2000 and one which is anticipated in 2001, providing a total of 500 megawatts.

Why is there a shortfall?

The reasons for the shortage are as varied as the estimates of its size: power plants are aging, only three plants have been built in recent years and consumer demand is rising.

In the past 20 or so years, weve bought electricity from sources outside the state rather than build plants here, Hozney said. As a result, more than half of the electricity generated comes from plants that are 25 years old. When those plants were built, companies expected to replace them in 10 or 15 years.

That didnt happen partly because of widespread objections by residents, Hozney said.

There has been considerable opposition to building generators and transmission lines, he said. I think people have forgotten that we have to achieve balance.

At least one Wisconsin legislator thinks everyone in the state is responsible for the current situation.

I feel we (the government), the industry and the public dropped the ball about 10 years ago, said state Sen. Jim Baumgart, a Democrat from Sheboygan. I think the industry was looking in other directions ... the government wasnt looking at the situation.

Today, about 15 percent of the states electricity is purchased from outside sources, Hozney said.

While Wisconsin may not have grown as quickly as other states during the past 10 years, it has nonetheless grown.

In addition, advances in computer technology and availability have made energy-hungry electronic equipment nearly indispensable in homes and businesses.

The down side to all this progress is the increased demand on aging plants.

When did the problem begin?

Evidence of the looming energy shortage began appearing in the summer of 1997, when demand overwhelmed supply and electric transmission equipment failed.

Nature contributed to the problem with a longer, hotter summer, which pushed the need for air conditioners to run more.

Industries were asked to sign up for voluntary power interruptions, and residents faced brownouts, Hozney said.

There also were a number of non-functioning power plants at that time. All three of Wisconsins nuclear plants and eight plants outside Wisconsin were offline, according to Jeff Butson, public affairs director for the Public Service Commission.

Things were nearly as difficult in 1998. Knowing that at the rate things were going there would be an electrical shortfall by 2000-2002, the PSC began making significant changes in 1998.

It ordered three power companies to build plants that would provide an additional 500 megawatts together, Butson said.

Two of the plants went online last year and the third, held up by a community group that tried to block its construction, is expected to go online later this year.

Whats being done to prevent a shortage?

In the past several months, 16 companies have indicated they are going to build 23 plants. While some, like a 1,050-megawatt plant being built by a California-based Pacific Gas & Electric subsidiary in Kenosha, are confirmed, at least three are still in the talking phase.

There are no guarantees that all or even any of these plants will be built, Butson said. But if all are built, that would give us almost 9,000 more megawatts than the 11,000 to 13,000 we have now, which would more than meet the shortfall were anticipating.

Of course, getting PSC approval to build those plants may be the least of a companys worries.

Some communities, such as Castle County, Pleasant Prairie and Sturtevant welcome power plants because of the tax benefits.

But this attitude tends to be the exception as most communities fight hard to block power plants, Butson noted.

The problem in the past and now is the not-in-my-back-yard attitude, Butson said. Residents in places like Edgerton are so upset about the idea of having a power plant there, theyve passed an ordinance stating no company can build a facility of more than 50 megawatts and it must be renewable source, not fossil fuels.

Among resident concerns is the appearance of power plants and their effect on property values.

In an on-going battle, some 12,000 North Woods residents have opposed construction of major lines that would bring power into that area from Minnesota, Butson said.

There is no proof that property values decline when major power lines or plants are built in a community.

What has happened, however, is that some people with homes or properties for sale who had offers to purchase saw those offer melt away when would-be buyers learned of plans for power lines nearby, Butson said.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 05, 2001

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