Green energy captured interest decades ago - yet it remains a polarizing topic. Debate continues churning around how much wind and sun should figure into our energy supply. Fossil fuels – gas and oil and coal, still dominate.
WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence kicks off our Project Milwaukee: Power Switch series by exploring the “birth” of the renewable movement in Wisconsin. She unearthed some of its passion and serendipity – on a road trip to rural Portage County.
Amy Heart deftly maneuvers her white Lancer on northbound 45. It’s a route, she knows well.
“We are headed north to the Stevens Point / Amherst area; when we’re talking about where did clean energy come from in Wisconsin, this is definitely the impetus,” Heart says.
Heart prefers the term “clean” over green.
As we near our destination, she points to a sparkling solar installation on a brewery.
“That’s the first brewery in the state that installed solar,” Heart says.
Neighboring rooftops bear earlier iterations of solar.
“The panels have changed a little bit for today’s technology, but really it’s pretty much the same,” Heart says.
Heart embraces the movement. She works in the City of Milwaukee’s sustainability office and, was anxious to introduce me to the trailblazers. She wasn’t even born when Mark Klein began saying no to the status quo, in the 1960s and 70s.
As soon as the Appleton native picked up his high school diploma, he headed here - determined to live off the grid. “It was the era of the back to the land movement and Whole Earth Catalog; enamored of the idea of owning a farm or living in a rural place. It went okay, because I’m in the same place I moved into almost 40 years ago,’ Klein says.
It was on that home, Klein installed his first solar panel but would not describe it as his best work.
“Really all we got out of it was a radio and the occasional light bulb,” Klein says.
Time and experience have sharpened Klein’s skills. We’re meeting in the grain storage facility he transformed into his energy efficient home construction business. Certain convictions have guided his life.
“The back story was sort of sustainability and environmentalism, but we have a much deeper understanding of environmentalism and the impact of our fossil fuel decisions than we did 30 years ago,” Klein says.
Seven miles south, Bob Ramlow jumped on the green energy bandwagon when he headed from Milwaukee to UW-Stevens Point in the 60s to study natural resources.
“You know they wanted to build a nuclear power plant on the Wisconsin River between Stevens Point and Plover in the late 60s and 70s so that raised environmental awareness,” Ramlow syas.
For Ramlow, the dots were connecting.
“How to put it nicely, 99.5 percent of the scientists of the world do agree that climate change and environmental degradation is caused by burning fossil fuels, so we saw that back then.
For two decades, Ramlow and Mark Stein helped neighbors install solar systems and hoist the occasional small turbine.
Ramlow says inspiration to reach out to more people struck in 1990.
“An editorial in Home Power Magazine called for people with renewable energy systems to come out of the closet. It went something like, ‘we know this stuff works and so we should start strutting it’. So we wrote a letter back that was published in the next issue saying that we were interested in starting an energy fair,” Ramlow says.
In less than six months, a dozen volunteers pulled off the first Midwest Renewable Energy Fair at the Amherst fairgrounds. Ramlow says coincidentally oil prices suddenly soared, because Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
“The week before the fair, the first Gulf War started and quite a lot of people in the media related the war to energy; dA! This is about oil! So we were on the news that there was this energy fair in Amherst and on Sunday it was a bright sunny day and over 5,000 people came that day,” Ramlow says.
Don Wichert worked in the state energy office at the time. He vividly remembers the day Bob Ramlow knocked on the door.
“I wrote a little story about this called “Three People With Ponytails” Two of them were guys. They showed up at our office at DOA sort of a conservative place and said, we’re going to put on this energy fair in the middle of the state in Amherst. And we said right,” Wichert says.
Ten fairs came and went before Wisconsin set its first renewable energy standard. It required that .5 percent of energy produced here, come from clean sources.
In 2002, the state rolled out the program, Focus on Energy. with funding pooled through utilities fees. through coming from utility ratepayer fees. Wichert says the big picture goal was to cultivate energy efficiencies; a small fraction of its budget promoted renewable initiatives.
“We focused on solar electric, solar water heating, small wind, biogas and biomass. I’d say we had – if not the best program in the country – in the top three.
Did the excitement spill over to traditional power producers? Wichert shakes his head.
“Oh they were completely ignoring it,” Wichert says.
The cost of green was substantially higher.
However, Kate Gordon says other states were impressed.
“Focus on Energy – that model is actually groundbreaking – and a lot of people have followed it,” Gordon says.
Gordon is director of energy and climate for a California-based group called Next Generation. She says Wisconsin stood out as an early leader in setting renewable standards and spearheading clean energy initiatives.
“Wisconsin in particular because it’s a place of really tight-knit communities and a lot of sort of bottom-up innovations; That’s absolutely the kind of thing that drives this stuff,” Gordon says.
The MREA is preparing to stage its 24th energy fair this month, while the state has slipped from its high renewable status.