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The American Independent

Federal climate legislation is poised to transform Wisconsin's path to net zero emissions

‘When it comes to in-state renewable energy generation, I’ve never been more optimistic,’ said Nick Hylla, executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.

By Nick Vachon - April 06, 2023
Vice President Kamala Harris tours clean energy laboratories with Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee during a visit to promote President Joe Biden's $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan, in Milwaukee, Tuesday, May 4, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris tours clean energy laboratories with Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee during a visit to promote President Joe Biden's $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan, in Milwaukee, Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A clean energy boom is sweeping the United States, spurred by two laws signed last year by President Joe Biden.

In Wisconsin, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law have dramatically expanded funding and lowered costs for clean energy projects, as well as the production and purchase of energy-efficient technology and solar panels.

Together, the IRA and the BIL have set the state on the path to net-zero emissions, or reducing emissions to the point that no new greenhouse gasses are added to the atmosphere, by 2050. However, Wisconsin’s energy transition is lagging behind neighboring states’. That is because the Republican-controlled state Legislature has largely refused to entertain legislation containing measures to fight climate change and support green energy.

The IRA alone includes $369 billion in tax credits, grants, and direct funding aimed at reducing emissions in the industries with the most carbon output. The nonprofit Environmental and Energy Studies Institute estimates that the IRA will reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 40% from 2005 levels, the peak year for U.S. emissions.

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that advocates for the adoption of renewable energy technologies and provides training for solar energy technicians.

“If you look at CHIPS, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s more federal energy spending committed over the next 10 years than the previous 30 years combined,” Nick Hylla, the group’s executive director, told the American Independent Foundation.

“I think this legislation is monumental,” Sam Dunaski, the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit that promotes renewable energy, told the American Independent Foundation. “It’s still a little too early to tell how it’s played out — I mean, it’s not even a year old yet — but I think there is a ton of optimism and excitement behind both of these pieces of legislation.”

Last year, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, released the state’s first Clean Energy Plan, which lays out a path for the state to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The 172-page report was written by the governor’s office in conjunction with the Wisconsin Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy. Maria Redmond, the office’s executive director, told the American Independent Foundation that the federal legislation “really is a game changer.” Building in-state renewable energy resources, which the IRA incentivizes, would both create more jobs and move the state towards self-sufficiency, Redmond said.

Wisconsin lags behind its neighbors, but opportunity awaits

Only 14% of Wisconsin’s energy comes from renewable sources, far less than in neighboring states Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a federal agency that collects and analyzes data related to domestic energy production. In 2021, gas and coal-fired power plants produced 76% of Wisconsin’s energy. Because the state lacks reserves of both of the main fossil fuels that are burned for electricity, Wisconsin’s utilities must purchase them from Canada and states such as Wyoming and Texas. Wisconsin also has fewer residents employed in green jobs than the national average, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Promoleaf, a sustainable promotional merchandise company.

But the state’s relative weakness in the green energy sector makes it particularly well-positioned to benefit from the IRA.

A report from Data for Progress, a liberal think tank, found that the IRA could create as many as 24,000 jobs in Wisconsin over the next decade — 5,100 more than the report estimates will be created in neighboring Minnesota, which has a more robust clean-power industry.

Some of those jobs will come from the expansion of generous tax credits to homeowners who upgrade their homes to be more energy-efficient. By decreasing the demand for energy, Hylla said, Wisconsin will be able to build fewer new renewable energy power plants to replace fossil fuel-based power plants, saving money.

“That’s the cheapest energy future,” Hylla said.

Another complementary feature of the IRA, Redmond said, is funding for small-scale solar projects. The bill allows tax-exempt organizations such as churches to get funding for installing solar panels. Previously, only taxable entities were eligible for federal reimbursement after installing panels.

Politics put a damper on a zero-carbon future

Legislative action would greatly aid the transition to a zero-carbon economy, but comprehensive climate and green energy bills are unlikely to pass this session. Republicans, who control both the upper and the lower chambers of the Legislature thanks to severe gerrymandering, have mostly opposed renewable energy legislation.

Last year, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos characterized a slate of bills proposed by Democrats that aimed to address climate change as “nothing more than pandering to the very liberal base.”

The 22 bills, based on recommendations made by the governor’s office, would have created grants for energy-efficient upgrades to homes and buildings, provided local governments with resources to prepare for the effects of climate change, and expanded funding for green jobs training programs.

According to polling published last October by Wisconsin Conservation Voices, an environmental advocacy group, 57% of registered voters supported doing “everything in our power to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

The results of Tuesday’s state Supreme Court election could play a role in bringing policy in line with what voters say they want. Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz will take her seat as the fourth member of the court’s new liberal majority in August. She has said that she does not believe that Wisconsin’s legislative maps, which give Republicans a significant advantage in the Assembly and Senate, are fair.

A successful challenge to the maps would likely mean more Democrats in the Assembly and Senate and more votes for renewable energy legislation.

There are, however, signs that the politics of green energy are changing on the Republican side as well. Earlier this year, two GOP representatives introduced a bill that would permit so-called “community solar,” small private solar farms not run by utilities, in the state. Wisconsin’s utilities oppose the legislation.

“I think there’s this appetite, slowly but surely, for more renewables legislation,” Redmond said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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