Milwaukee Steps Up to Fight Climate Change

By Mary Sussman

February 12, 2019

Shepherd Express

 

The United States Global Change Research Program released its Fourth National Climate Change Assessment in late 2018 with more than 300 federal and non-federal experts collaborating on the report. The report notes that, in the Great Lakes region, lake surface temperatures are increasing, ice cover is declining, seasonal stratification of temperatures in the lakes is occurring earlier in the year and summer evaporation rates are increasing. In addition, storm impacts are increasing, while coastal water quality is declining, putting coastal communities at risk.

While several coastal communities have expressed a willingness to integrate climate action into planning efforts, access to useful climate information and limited human and financial resources have constrained municipal action.

The federal report found that human health and safety, quality of life and economic growth are increasingly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, and efforts to respond to climate change thus far have been insufficient to avoid these impacts. This was not helped by a climate-change denying president’s tweets and 78 reversals and proposed rollbacks on environmental regulations during Donald Trump’s presidency. The report also found that, without concerted and sustained global efforts to reduce climate change and buffer its impacts, climate change will result in increased losses to our infrastructure and property, as well as impede future economic growth.

Climate Change’s Effects on Southeastern Wisconsin

In Milwaukee, we will continue to see higher levels of humidity, changes to the kind of plants that grow here, more extreme storms, higher precipitation levels and more flooding, says Russell L. Cuhel, senior scientist at the Great Lakes WATER Institute at the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. “It is our politicians and big money that are controlling our national approach to climate change,” he says. “It would be stupid not to mitigate the likely effects that we will see in the near future no matter what happens, but it would also be stupid not to make an effort to reduce the insult.”

Cuhel also says that our mid-latitude region will likely see more severe climate change because we are at the interface of climate zones. “The change that we will see here is likely to be more substantial or more erratic than the changes that are predicted for the [rest of the] United States,” he continues. “We are likely to see more extreme events than other places. But for us in Milwaukee, Lake Michigan will moderate a lot of that through its giant inertia.”

In Wisconsin, local municipalities are taking things into their own hands to reduce their carbon footprints, despite the fact that the U.S. withdrew from the Paris agreement, and the Environmental Protection Agency has actively dismantled Barack Obama-era regulations designed to mitigate climate change. Like 50 other cities across the country at the front lines of pushback against climate change, Madison, Middleton and Eau Claire recently adopted resolutions to work toward becoming 100% clean-energy cities that use carbon-free renewable energy.

Since 2008, the city’s Milwaukee Shines program has assisted with getting 3.8 megawatts(enough to power almost 4,000 homes) of solar energy installed on homes and businesses. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is one of more than 400 “Climate Mayors” across the country who committed to adopt, honor and uphold Paris Climate Agreement goals. The City of Milwaukee has also adopted a goal of utilizing 25% clean energy by 2025 in city buildings and facilities as outlined in its ReFresh MKE sustainability plan.

The Rocky Path to Clean Energy

Recently, however, Milwaukee encountered a roadblock in realizing its clean-energy goals. Milwaukee contracted with Eagle Point Solar, an Iowa-based company specializing in solar installation. Fully expecting to connect solar installations on six city buildings to the WE Energies electrical grid, WE Energies denied the city’s application to do so because the utility claimed that the project was illegal under state law. WE Energies contended that, because Eagle Point Solar will initially own a large share of the project, it would be considered a public utility that is “selling” power to the city. This argument was made previously in an Iowa lawsuit involving Eagle Point Solar. In 2014, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Eagle Point Solar did not act as a public utility when it attempted to enter a third-party power-purchase agreement with the city of Dubuque.

After denying the City of Milwaukee’s application to connect to the power grid, WE Energies unveiled two pilot solar programs of its own. WE Energies claims its solar program would allow the city to get nearly 40% of its energy from renewable sources, reduce energy costs and generate $80,000 a year in lease payments, says Amy Jahns, senior communications specialist at WE Energies.

Solar developers say that such a program would stifle competition in the booming solar industry and create a monopoly for solar distribution by preventing third-party ownership, as reported in the Energy News Network. Alderman Nik Kovac says WE Energies is protecting its own interests in denying Milwaukee’s application. “How can you pretend you care about solar when you deliberately misinterpret the law and change your mind on an application when you know you will lose in court,” Kovac says.

“It’s obvious to see what is going on. WE Energies can’t even pretend to be for solar,” Kovac continues. “They are clearly protecting their monopoly on power, no matter how it’s generated. If anyone else tries to be innovative or efficient with money, they will throw their body in front of it. Not because it has anything to do with the world or their customers, but to protect their monopoly. WE Energies has more power than anyone else in our region and has used their power to expand their carbon footprint rather than reduce it.”

Kovac says he’s happy WE Energies is getting into the solar business, but he’s unhappy they are doing it by blocking the existing solar deal. “We may turn out to take their deal on every other city building,” he says, “but we have a deal for six city buildings ready to go, with the panels in a warehouse, and they’re blocking it. It would have been ready to go in November.”

The matter has yet to be resolved. In December, the Public Service Commission unanimously approved both of WE Energies’ pilot solar programs.

Elizabeth Ward, conservation programs coordinator for the Sierra Club’s John Muir Chapter, says the local movement for clean energy is a response to back pedaling at both the federal and state levels. “Four or five years ago, the state legislature was putting up barriers to clean energy, and so were the utilities,” she says. “The Legislature was trying to change the legislation around wind farms, making it more difficult to get wind farms in Wisconsin, and the utilities proposed mandatory fees or fixed charges for solar, making it less economical for a person to go toward clean energy. “Voters want to see 100% clean energy,” Ward continues. “They are demanding it from their utilities, and they’re demanding it from their governments as well.”