• WisBusiness

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Innovation around energy and conservation will continue, even without new law

By Tom Still
If you listen to some of the bill’s supporters, the Legislature’s failure to pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act means the polar ice cap will melt away within a year and we’ll all be indebted forever to OPEC.

Conversely, some of the bill’s opponents predicted Wisconsin’s economy would run out of gas overnight if the state tried to better position itself as a player in the “green economy.”

Fortunately, neither doomsday scenario is true. That’s because the immense market forces at work will continue to transform Wisconsin’s energy economy, even without more legislation right now to prod things along.

A recent survey of 1,400 company executives by Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc. found that most businesses are investing heavily in energy efficiency, either to save money over time, to reduce their carbon footprint or both. Nearly one-third of the execs who responded to the survey said they increased energy efficiency spending in 2009, despite the recession.

Many of those companies are already reporting double-digit returns on their investment – and they’re expecting even greater returns as tougher greenhouse gas requirements become a reality.

Alternative energy research and investment isn’t powering down, either. At an April 27 meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Madison, leaders of the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative and the Wisconsin Energy Institute – both tied to the UW-Madison campus – described a broad range of research under way.

For the short term, UW-Madison researchers are focused on efficiency and green construction, “smart grid” technologies for electricity transmission and management, automotive engine research and next-generation nuclear fission plants. Mid-term projects include cellulosic biofuels, advanced wind power generation, advanced nuclear power technologies and energy storage. Longer-term projects include nuclear fusion, photovoltaics and fuel cells.

The campus spends about $75 million per year on energy-related research, with 130 projects spread across the campus.

Troy Runge, director of the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative, described Wisconsin as uniquely positioned to “return to our roots” and develop biofuels and other bio-based products from sustainable resources readily available, such as farmland, forests and waste materials. Existing federal and state goals call for converting about 1 billion tons of plant biomass to biofuels every year by 2025, Runge noted, “and we’re in a strong position to be a big part of that.”

Of course, there will be bumps along the road, regardless of technology. Some examples:

* A recent federal Energy Department report noted that wind power could become a major source of electricity within 15 years, but the nation may need to spend $100 billion to put the necessary power grid in place.

* The world’s second-largest solar plant is under construction in sunny Florida, but even at 500 acres its shimmering panels will produce only 75 megawatts of power – a fraction of what conventional power plants crank out every year.

* From algae to beets, from switchgrass to paper waste, scientists are looking for new ways to tap the potential of biofuels. The challenge is to produce those fuels by the millions of gallons, versus the hundreds, and at a price that competes with fossil fuels. There are also necessary questions to be answered about diverting land that could be used to grow food to supply biomass for fuel production.

Can science and the marketplace get us there? In time… yes. The first computer in the 1940s weighed 30 tons, occupied 1,800 square feet and burned electricity by the megawatt. Today, a single desktop computer has a couple of thousand times more processing power and millions of times more data storage capacity. And it takes up almost no space.

It wasn’t government mandates that transformed computing, but innovation and market demand. Those same forces will drive the generation, storage and transmission of clean energy, with or without a new state law.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. To learn more about the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative and the Wisconsin Energy Institute, visit http://www.wbi.wisc.edu and http://www.energy.wisc.edu


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