We Energies grapples with new EPA rules




The Environmental Protection Agency wants Wisconsin to cut its carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 34 percent by 2030.

But how We Energies — which operates a coal-fired power plant in Pleasant Prairie — will do that is uncertain.

The proposal is part of a nationwide proposal which would mandate U.S. power plants collectively cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent compared with 2005 levels in 16 years.

The rule aims to curb the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, which are linked to climate change, and will have a significant impact on the way Wisconsin produces energy, a state which gets 62 percent of its energy from coal, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In fact, the Pleasant Prairie plant was ranked No. 69 of the 100 highest carbon-dioxide-emitting power plants in the U.S. In 2009.

Technology not available

We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said the technology isn't available for power plants to capture and store carbon dioxide, which the final version of the rule should take into account.

“Based on what is available, no utilities in the country can retrofit a current plant, capture carbon and put it in the ground,” Manthey said. “Even if there was a way, a technology that would be able to do that, there is no place to store in Wisconsin.”

He said Wisconsin's geo formations wouldn't enable power plants to store carbon dioxide underground — a pipeline could be formed, but he questioned who would pay for that.

“The new rule needs to take that into account. What will the details of this rule be, and will it be one that takes into account customer rates?” Manthey said.

The EPA will finalize its proposal in 2015 and gives states a year to come up with its implementation plans.

Meeting the goals

States can meet emission targets for power plants in several ways:

— Plant upgrades.

— Switching from coal to natural gas, which We Energies has already done with a few of its plants.

— Improving energy efficiency.

— Promoting renewable energy outside the plant site.

Cutting toxins

Although the Pleasant Prairie plant emits 8.6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, Manthey said We Energies has worked to cut back other toxicities.

He said two coal units recently built in Oak Creek emit less carbon dioxide per unit of energy for every megawatt. In other words, it takes less coal to produce energy than other plants in the country

He said We Energies put emission controls on its first plant in 2007, and has reduced emissions of chemicals such as nitrogen dioxide and mercury by about 85 percent.

“We really have invested a lot in emission controls in our plants,” he said. “Things like this have improved the energy proficiency of our entire system, and we feel that should be taken into account with the final rule.”

Worth the cost

Clean Wisconsin's Senior Policy Director Keith Reopelle said the benefits of the news rules far outweigh the costs.

“It's critical for our children and future generations that we address these problems now,” Reopelle said. “It will only get more expensive to address the longer we wait.”

He said benefits include increased economic development opportunities as well as better health, including lower chances of asthma, respiratory issues and hospital visits.

Alternative energy

He said the new rule gives energy companies the opportunity to look at alternative ways of gathering energy.

“We think that each utility will need to explore all alternatives,” he said. “The most important thing they can do is invest in energy efficiency. That's the least costly way to decrease carbon emissions.”

He said while We Energies has taken steps to modernize its plants in terms of controlling mercury and smog emissions, it hasn't specifically addressed carbon emissions.

“The pollution reductions they've made to date have been really important and useful but will need to make more reductions, and they have a lot of ways to do that,” he said.

He said the new rules are flexible and in no way will be detrimental to energy companies.

“They're over a length period of time. Companies are given 15 years to reduce emissions,” he said. “They've given utilities and the states a lot of flexibility in how they can make those reductions over the period of time.

“I don't think this will be at all a disadvantage to to a company like We, but it will mean they are paying more attention to alternative energy methods and energy efficiently.”


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