Extreme makeover: town edition?

“He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator.”

-Francis Bacon

I’m filing this post in the Climate Champions category. Much like the Nobel Committee’s granting of the peace prize to President Obama, the designation is aspirational.

As Thomas Content reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on October 25, King Coal took another one in the shorts recently with the opening of a 40-megawatt biomass power plant in Cassville, Wisconsin, where the bituminous arch-nemesis of the planet’s climate once reigned supreme — and with a dirty fist.

It was the second time in as many years that the sleepy river town, which might have become Wisconsin’s first capital in 1836 but for a single vote, has played host to a significant climate victory. In 2008 the Wisconsin Pubic Service Commission unanimously rejected Alliant Energy’s plan to upgrade the coal-burning Nelson Dewey Generating Station it currently owns and operates in Cassville, even though the 1.26 billion dollar-plant that Alliant proposed would have burned 20 percent biomass along with more coal.

The “new” biomass plant that went on line this week is just a mile or so downstream from the Alliant plant and occupies the site of the former Dairyland Cooperative coal-burning power plant, which opened in 1951. Even though the plant operated for just a few decades before closing, much of the climate-altering carbon dioxide (CO2) it once spewed is still trapping heat in the atmosphere. CO2 remains aloft for 50 to 100 years.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

The resurrected power plant will still emit some pollutants (I’m particularly concerned about the creosote and other chemicals in the old railroad ties and other wood waste making up part of the fuel mix), including CO2, but it will discharge a tiny fraction of the soot, or black carbon, the coal-burning plant just upstream from it currently emits. Many scientists now say such black carbon is responsible for most of the rapid melting occurring in the Arctic and Antarctic. The tiny particles, which can also come from diesel exhaust and forest fires, travel relatively short distances and fall to earth within days or weeks, greatly altering the albedo, or energy absorption properties, of snow and ice. As I wrote in a previous post, we need some studies looking at how black carbon produced in Wisconsin and states west of ours may be contributing to the dramatic melting we’ve seen on our own inland lakes (and the Great Lakes) in the last half century or more.

All the power from the new plant will be purchased by the still thriving Dairyland Power Cooperative. According to the La Crosse-based cooperative’s Web site, the biomass station will displace enough coal-generated electricity to power 28,000 homes in Wisconsin. Dairyland continues to burn coal in several other power plants it owns and was sued by the Sierra Club in June of this year for what the group says are multiple serious violations of the Clean Air Act at it’s Genoa and Alma generating stations.

But at least the cooperative seems to be heading in the right direction and is ahead of the state of Wisconsin when it comes to cleaning up its act. Dairyland has been investing heavily in renewable energy and owns numerous natural gas, landfill gas, wind, and animal waste power-generation facilities in the state. The cooperative’s board set a goal last year to have 25 percent of its energy come from renewable resources by 2025. The Wisconsin legislature, by contrast, failed to pass the Clean Energy and Jobs Act this year, which would have raised the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from a measly 10 percent by 2015 to 20 percent by 2020, and 25 percent by 2025.

The real hero-in-the-making here could be the town of Cassville, which seems to be undergoing a rapid makeover from a climate enemy to a climate champion.

Situated as it is on the banks of America’s largest river, practically within spitting distance of three other states, and with easy access to transmission lines that carry power to several major cities, Cassville’s potential to become a heavyweight  in the clean energy economy in the region is as large as the town is small. Huge streams of clean, renewable energy pass Cassville every day, not only in the form of the great river moving along its western boundary, but in the form of wind passing over its towering bluffs. If the town was smart about how it tapped into those streams and fed the power into the grid, biomass might be just the beginning for Cassville. The tiny town could yet become Wisconsin’s true capital after all — of clean energy.

If, that is, it’s what the people of Cassville want. There are some who would like to see the town remain tied to the past. Burning coal is what many residents know.

Here’s the thing: King Coal’s days in this country are numbered. Just ask power producers like Dairyland and Madison Gas & Electric. Like many utilities across the country, both are backing away from coal the way a sprayed dog backs away from a skunk. If Cassville wants to thrive, it will need to let go of the old, dirty past (which was not without certain benefits). It can do so halfheartedly and begrudgingly, prolonging the transition away from planet-warming coal, or it can embrace the clean energy economy and position itself to profit and prosper beyond it’s wildest dreams.