The Future of Fossil Fuels in Wisconsin

For decades, Clean Wisconsin has fought against using fossil fuels (coal and gas) to generate electricity. From 2001 to 2005, we opposed the gigantic Elm Road coal project in Oak Creek, taking the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and losing by one vote. That coal plant is still running, emitting over seven million tons of carbon per year, with no end in sight. That’s the emissions equivalent of 1,524,354 vehicles. But just a few years later, we successfully challenged construction of a new coal plant in southwestern Wisconsin that also would have emitted millions of tons of carbon over its lifespan.  

Now that the economics of burning coal have shifted, utilities are turning to gas and renewable energy. While methane gas emits roughly half the carbon that coal does, that doesn’t make it clean; a large gas plant will still churn out millions of tons of carbon, significantly contributing to atmospheric carbon levels at a time when even many climate change skeptics must admit that the planet is warming, floods and wildfires are more frequent and severe, and we should have done more, sooner.  

There’s hope. The Biden EPA recently rolled out its strongest-ever proposal to slash planet-warming emissions from power plants. In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that drastically limited EPA’s options for controlling power sector greenhouse gas emissions, the agency crafted a proposal to reduce emissions from coal and gas plants through efficiency, carbon capture and storage, and the use of clean hydrogen fuel. The Court’s mandate to address pollution “at the source” means that in order to stay online into 2040, the Elm Road power plant must be equipped with technology to capture at least 90% of its carbon emissions by 2030. Gas plants expected to operate for decades could comply with the rule by co-firing with low-emitting hydrogen, gradually ramping up to a 96 percent hydrogen blend by 2038. 

While these technologies are developing rapidly, it would be far less costly and more efficient to simply replace these fossil fuel facilities with wind and solar energy paired with battery storage. For example, the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a $700 million gas plant planned for Superior, Wis., was proposed back in 2018 and approved by the Public Service Commission early in 2020. Once built, the plant would be required to either co-fire with hydrogen or install carbon capture technology. While the owners claim the project is “hydrogen ready,” it is likely that it could only use up to 30% hydrogen, far less than would be required under the EPA rule. Carbon capture and storage would require expensive pipelines and suitable geologic storage sites, neither of which have been developed in northern Wisconsin.  

However, the rule does allow utilities a long lead time to comply, and the Inflation Reduction Act offers funding to advance carbon capture and storage and hydrogen technologies that could make EPA’s proposal more economically feasible. The 2022 law includes a tax credit of $85 per metric ton of permanently stored carbon.  

The proposed Clean Power Plan rule is arguably the most aggressive action the EPA has ever taken to curb carbon pollution. It is scheduled to be finalized by June 2024 and will face an onslaught of legal challenges. Clean Wisconsin will intervene to defend the rule and continue to work to eliminate dirty fossil fuels from Wisconsin.