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Renewable energy a mix of past, future

August 9, 2016 GMT

The world is changing, and how people obtain energy will need to change too.

Wind, hydroelectric, solar, and alternative fuels such as ethanol, have become popular in recent decades as a way to reduce dependence on fossil fuel sources of energy and help the environment. In the local region, energy companies are using the area’s resources to produce power that is sustainable, clean and renewable.

From the dams in Sauk, Juneau and Columbia counties that have passed the century mark, to the huge wind turbines that dot the rural landscape northeast of Portage, local companies are using old and new ideas to create the energy of the future.

Hydroelectric power embraces past, future

When the Southern Wisconsin Power Co. unveiled its mighty Kilbourn Dam in Wisconsin Dells in 1909, it was the largest dam west of Niagara Falls and considered a modern engineering masterpiece. It helped turn the Dells into a summer vacation hub and was vital in the formation of the Wisconsin Power and Light Co. More importantly, it brought many Wisconsinites out of the darkness and into the light, giving them their first taste of electricity.

The dam, which rests on the border of Sauk and Columbia counties, is still pumping out power, producing 10 megawatts of electricity and powering about 10,000 homes.

The construction of the Kilbourn Dam brought heavier water flow to the Wisconsin Dells area, raising levels of the Wisconsin River. More boats began flocking to the Dells and it eventually blossomed into a major tourist destination in Wisconsin.

The larger Prairie du Sac Hydro dam, built in 1914, has a capacity of 31 megawatts of electricity, sending power to about 30,000 homes. The formation of the Prairie du Sac dam brought transmission lines from Baraboo to Berlin.

The hydro dam resulted in the formation of Lake Wisconsin, near Poynette. Through the years, Lake Wisconsin also has become a tourist magnet and popular fishing site.

In addition, Alliant Energy, owners of the Kilbourn and Prairie du Sac Hydro dams, owns a 50 percent interest in Wisconsin River Power Co., which operates the Petenwell and Castle Rock Dams in Juneau County. In all, Alliant Energy produces about 60 megawatts through hydro power that brings electricity to about 60,000 homes.

Magnus Swenson, a Norwegian immigrant who brought both dams to the Sauk and Columbia county areas, probably wouldn’t believe his vision is still producing electricity, is very profitable and could be around for another 100 years.

Amanda Acton, site manager of hydroelectric power generation for Alliant, said that while both dams have undergone routine upgrades and maintenance, they haven’t changed much since Swenson gave them life more than a century ago.

“A lot of the equipment is still original, but there are certain parts that do wear over time and those get replaced every 10 to 25 years or so,” Acton said. “We have done some upgrades as far as electronics and controls. We used to be staffed 24 hours, seven days a week, but we can now control everything from a computer. We’ve done a lot of dam safety improvements over the years, constantly inspecting our dams to make sure that they have the original integrity and they protect people downstream.(tncms-asset)69c86f6e-3d95-562b-87de-bba0caa1fbfc(/tncms-asset)

“If you come out to our dams in the summer, you’ll always see some type of project going on every year because we’re always doing something to improve the facilities and keep them safe and operational.”

While alternative energy and the “going green” movement are relatively new, hydro power has been around for much longer. Acton envisions the dams along the Wisconsin River to be functional for the next 100 years and beyond.

“I don’t see them going anywhere,” Acton said. “The Prairie du Sac dam — it makes Lake Wisconsin; the Kilbourn Dam — it makes the Upper and Lower Dells. They are vital parts of the community. When we’re planning and doing projects, we always keep that in mind. We don’t look for a quick fix; we want the best engineering solutions and projects that have longevity.”

In Alliant’s diverse energy plan for the next few decades, Acton said hydro power should remain a strong component. While the world is slowly moving away from fossil fuel dependence, Acton sees a mixed bag of energy sources available for years to come.

“We call it balanced generation where we do have renewable energy sources and while you’re backing away from some of the fossil fuels, in order to keep the power on for everyone, we still need to have a little bit of everything right now,” Acton said. “I was just at a huge hydroelectric conference in Minneapolis a couple weeks ago and listened to some different speakers, even from the U.S. Department of Energy. They want to expand hydro power and there are a lot of dams that exist but are not powered, they are just used for water control. They are looking to bring power to those.”

Alliant doesn’t have plans to expand its hydro power production in the foreseeable future, but will maintain and make improvements to its current dams along the Wisconsin River. Acton said Alliant is also getting into the wind energy boom and recently launched a construction project in Iowa.

“Wind kind of produces when it wants and wind tends to blow more at night when people are sleeping and the demand for energy is lower,” Acton said. “With hydro, the river is always flowing, but there are times, especially during droughts, when we just don’t produce as much. That was the case in 2012. Generally, though, we stay fairly consistent.”(tncms-asset)b2e31deb-7827-58ea-ad2c-c9df2e4d97f4(/tncms-asset)

Ethanol makes its mark

Similar to hydroelectric power, using corn as an alternative energy source isn’t a new concept. Henry Ford used ethanol to fuel his first vehicles in the early 1900s. It took several decades though for ethanol to become part of every vehicle’s fuel consumption and the industry’s future looks bright.

Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is produced from the fermentation of sugars by yeasts and blended into fuel. The industry received a boost in the early 2000s when a mix of 10 percent ethanol was added to regular unleaded fuel. As a result, ethanol plants were built across Wisconsin.

In northeastern Juneau County, Marquis Energy-Wisconsin houses a plant a few miles south of Necedah. Marquis, headquartered in Hennepin, Illinois, is a family-owned energy company. The Necedah plant was built in 2008, just as demand for ethanol was hitting its peak.

“The modern day ethanol boom started in about 2005 and ended in ’09,” said Marquis Grain Merchandiser Howard Boppart. “It was like a gold rush at first; everyone comes on and then it’s not as profitable.”

Just prior to 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that an additive in fuel to boost octane in engines was toxic. The logical alternative was ethanol because it burns clean and was readily available. Since the mid-2000s, more than 200 ethanol plants were built across the U.S. Boppart said the plant in Necedah is very similar to United Wisconsin Grain Producers in Friesland in northeastern Columbia County.(tncms-asset)ae25c86d-ddab-5840-aa39-04a0866c416f(/tncms-asset)

The plant in Necedah began as Castle Rock Renewable Energy, owned by a hedge fund. When the ethanol era began to fade a few years ago, the hedge fund owners jumped ship and sold to Marquis. Since then, the plant has boosted its production from 50 million gallons per year to 80 million.

“We grind through about 600 semi trucks of corn every week,” Boppart said. “Almost all the ethanol is produced in the Midwest because that’s where the corn is, but the biggest usage is along each coast because that’s where most of the population is.”

Not only does Marquis produce ethanol, it sells the starch from corn that serves as a feed for cattle.

“The big think about ethanol is it’s clean, it’s renewable and it’s domestic,” Boppart said. “Those things are really important for the country. It’s healthy for the environment and we’re always growing corn so it’s renewable. Every gallon produced here is essentially one less gallon of crude oil that we need overseas. We’re still importing about 40 percent of our oil. The money from ethanol stays in this country and doesn’t go overseas to the Middle East.”

Marquis gets its corn from co-ops across the Upper Midwest, but draws heavily from Wisconsin. There are nine ethanol plants in the state. Boppart said Marquis exports a lot of its ethanol, especially to China. The large Asian country is looking for ways to reduce pollution and is finally turning to alternative fuels to help do so. Columbia County has the UWGP plant and Didion, located a few miles away in Cambria. The UWGP plant celebrated its tenth anniversary last year.

“It was started by about nine local corn producers who wanted to get a better market for their corn. They were putting in long hours to ship their corn and weren’t seeing a lot of value,” said general manager Barb Bontrager. “We now have about 900 investors, but no one owns more than 7 percent. It’s very community owned and a family-oriented business. We started operating in April of 2005 and were initially a 40 million gallon per year ethanol plant. In ’07, we upgraded to include the fermentation side so now we’re producing about 57 million and we grind about 20 million bushels of corn per year.”

UWGP gets corn from farmers within a 60-mile radius. Bontrager said the push for cleaner fuel standards has raised the percentage of ethanol in fuel in recent years. While gas prices have dipped dramatically in the past two years, the high prices motorists were paying in the summer of ’08 would have been even higher without ethanol blended into the fuel.

“The transportation industry is realizing that with the higher octane in ethanol, cars are getting better performance,” Bontrager said.(tncms-asset)225312fe-5d93-11e6-b517-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)

Winds blows strong

In 2010, We Energies decided that the sprawling farm fields in northeast Columbia County would be the perfect setting for the largest wind farm in Wisconsin.

A drive along Highway 33 through the towns of Randolph and Scott reveal 90 white turbines dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see. We Energies contracted Vestas Wind Systems to build Glacier Hills Wind Park in May of 2010 as part of a $364 million project. The turbines began producing wind energy in December of 2011.

Cathy Schulze, spokesperson for We Energies, said the vast open space of rural Columbia County provided the best location for this large wind energy project.

“The wind resources in this area are ideal for wind energy production,” Schulze said. “We needed a fairly rural area for siting the turbines.”

Each turbine, weighing 300 tons and towering over the landscape at 262 feet, are a pitch-regulated, upwind model with a three-blade rotor. Each rotor measures 295 feet in diameter and moves at 14.5 revolutions per minute (RPM). Moving at 29 miles per hour, a turbine can produce 1.8 megawatts of energy.

While the towns of Scott and Randolph are predominantly rural, many large farms occupy this area. Schulze said residents were supportive of the We Energies project proposal in 2010 and have welcomed the huge turbines to their neighborhoods.

“We’ve had very good communication and robust support from the local community,” Schulze said.

Wind energy has grown throughout the Midwest in recent decades. While the price tag was heavy, We Energies believed building Glacier Hills Wind Park was a valuable investment into the future of alternative energy and a healthy environment. We Energies is based in Milwaukee and produces electric power to customers in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“Wind energy is an important part of our energy mix and our customers are interested in our renewable efforts,” Schulze said. “It’s a valuable resource and remains the most cost effective renewable energy source in Wisconsin.”

We Energies started its foray into wind energy in the late 1990s. The company constructed its first two wind turbines near Byron, Wisconsin in 1999 and, in 2008, began operating the Blue Sky Green Field Wind Energy Center in northeast Fond du Lac County. After building the massive wind park at Glacier Hills, We Energies purchased the Montfort Wind Energy Center, a 20-turbine farm in Iowa County that was built in 2001 and began operating under the We Energies label in 2012.

Despite its large investment in wind energy, Schulze said the company has no plans to build additional wind farms in the near future.(tncms-asset)d411b0fd-3d30-58e6-b2c8-41752004d298(/tncms-asset)

Reedsburg goes green

In Reedsburg, the city’s Renewable Energy Program allows costumers a chance to “go green” a few dollars at a time.

Through its membership in WPPI Energy, the Reedsburg Utility Commission has access to wind, biogas, and solar energy. Customers can choose to be in the program by designating money from their monthly energy bill to go toward the Renewable Energy Program. Dollars invested in the program allows for the growth of renewable energy.

Customers can enter into the program for $3 per month for each block of renewable energy, the equivalent to 300 kilowatt hours. They can also opt-out of the program at any time with no cancellation fee. By using a green power calculator, customers can see how many blocks they need to purchase to reduce their carbon footprint. Purchasing two blocks of renewable energy per month is equal to offsetting 100 percent of a car’s emissions, according to the program’s website.

In 2009, the utility installed solar panels at Reedsburg Area High School.

“The goal of this project was to be a demonstration,” said Anna Stieve, Reedsburg Utility Commission energy services representative. “So something in a very highly visible area, and to encourage other folks in the community to look at and potentially adopt.”

The solar panels produce 6,000 kilowatt hours per year, about twice what is needed to power a 1,000 square foot house on an annual basis. Its emission savings is approximate to keeping one vehicle off the road for a year.

“We’re definitely seeing solar being adopted in the Reedsburg community,” Stieve said. “I think this project is going to help lead the way with respect for solar being adopted.”