Environment
4:10 pm
Fri January 10, 2014

National Expert: Wisconsin Risks Falling Behind in Renewable Energy Technology

Madison Central Library has 19.2 kW solar panels, installed last September by H&H Solar Energy Services.
Credit H&H Solar Energy Services Facebook

WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence interviews renewable energy experts Karl Rábago and Dan Arvizu.

A former U.S. Energy Department leader says Wisconsin's efforts to implement and grow sustainable energy resources show signs of "stalling" and even "going backward."

Karl Rábago, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration, made the comment today at the state's 3rd annual RENEW Policy Summit at UW-Madison.

Rábago says Wisconsin has boasted a great tradition of developing renewable energy innovations - from energy standards to efficiencies to technology. It's often considered "the clean energy frontier," given it has explored options like solar and other renewable energies due to its lack of homegrown traditional sources of energy, such as natural gas or coal.

But Rábago, who now runs an Denver, Co.-based renewable energy consulting firm, says the state needs to push the foundations it's laid further.

"Wisconsin's at the point now where it's previously ambitious goals now look to be a ceiling and a ceiling against opportunity, and that's not what you should do," he says. "Wisconsin has the decision on its hands whether it wants to build on a good tradition and strengthen that, and reap the benefits in terms of business, economic development, clean energy, resilience, energy security, or sit on its laurels and let somebody else take the leadership position."

If it doesn't become a renewable energy leader, Rábago says, Wisconsin risks becoming a consumer in the coming energy market, spending its money to buy other states' resources.

"Minnesota doesn't have much better sun, but it's got solar manufacturers and it's got a standard," Rábago says. "I get phone calls from people saying, 'I want to go do business in this market of opportunity that is Minnesota.' I don't get those calls about Wisconsin."

Rábago says it's not a matter of if, but when the system transitions to renewable technologies, like smart grid energy management and solar power.

That sentiment was echoed by another summit speaker, Dr. Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, in Golden, Colo.

Arvizu says the technology is still relatively immature and likely won't compete with fossil fuels for some time, but he's "very, very bullish on the idea that solar will be a huge piece of the future energy system."

He credits falling prices, consistent public and political support, clever capitalist business models, and new innovators coming into the market for solar's rising place in the energy world.

"This is probably the most charismatic energy technology that we've seen in a long time," he says. "It's kind of had a coming out party in the marketplace, but it's still a relatively small fraction of our overall energy consumption and that will change over time."

But in order for solar to become a dominant energy source, Arvizu says an energy transformation will have to occur, to create a system that's more sustainable than what we have now. While still being affordable, reliable, resilient, safe and secure, and accessible, Arvizu says it's also got to be environmentally benign.

"In that future system, we're going to see a lot greater attention to efficiency and renewable energy and distributed systems of all kinds," he says.

Arvizu also predicts that future energy customers may also be energy providers as well, adding to what's offered by traditional providers. More providers will improve capacity, value, voltage stability, and storage of energy.

All this growth in renewable energies, he predicts, will create jobs and competitiveness in the energy field. But he says that will only happen if we make a societal decision to shift toward making energy efficient and economic choices today.