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Monday, November 23, 2009

Beyond coal ... winners and losers

From an article by Chris Hubbuch in the La Crosse Tribune:

Local utilities support efforts to reduce greenhouse gases but differ on how to do it fairly

CASSVILLE, Wis. - The future of Wisconsin's energy is piled high on the south lot of the E.J. Stoneman plant.

Gone is the coal that fueled the boilers for six decades. Now 40,000 tons of wood chips and railroad ties tower over construction workers building an apparatus to grind that wood into fuel.

With its yellow tile walls and dusty turbines, Stoneman hardly looks futuristic. La Crosse-based Dairyland Power built the plant in 1950 and shuttered it in 1993 for economic reasons.

But with a push to limit carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, utilities are scrambling for new sources of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. Stoneman again is viable.

DTE Energy Systems bought the plant in 2008, stripped out the boilers and began a two-year project to convert it to biomass. Starting this summer, they expect the turbines to spin again with steam generated primarily by construction and demolition debris.

Even with a cost in the tens of millions - they don't disclose the exact amount - DTE expects to make money because of the premium price for green energy.

On the other side of town, Alliant Energy burns wood pellets along with coal at its Nelson Dewey station as part of a yearlong test. Though Madison-based Alliant has no plans to convert the plant, the company will use the data as it examines ways to reduce its carbon footprint, spokesman Steve Schultz said.

With Congress poised for the first time to limit carbon emissions, power utilities are ramping up efforts to replace coal, a cheap and plentiful resource that long has been the major source of electricity, particularly in the Midwest.

Environmental advocates say it's a start to slowing global climate change, and even utilities favor the principle of limiting greenhouse gases.

But not all utilities are created equal. Xcel Energy, which supplies urban households and industries, has a diverse energy portfolio bolstered by investments in renewable sources and nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse gases. Dairyland Power, which through its member cooperatives provides power for most of the Coulee Region's rural and small town residents, relies almost exclusively on coal.

Both utilities support a congressional approach to cutting carbon emissions but differ on the details of how it should be done.

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