Friday, January 21, 2011

Walker kills biomass at Charter St plant: Again penny wise and pound foolish

Too bad that saying is using British currency, because "penny wise and dollar foolish" just doesn't sound quite as catchy. But the wisdom behind it is still the same. You can save a little money now, but find out that your savings are short lived, and you end up spending more money over the longer term.

Yesterday's announcement that our new Governor is finally killing the biomass boilers on the new Charter Street heating plant is just this kind of thinking. He's crowing about saving the Wisconsin taxpayers $100 million by not including the option to burn biomass, as well as natural gas. But heating plants last many decades, and we don't know what the price of natural gas will be in 2020, 2030, or 2050. We are passing up a chance to build a heating plant that could switch its fuel based on the prevailing price, and the fuel could come from right here in Wisconsin, instead of far away via a pipeline.

This power plant will sit on the University campus, a campus that is in the forefront of research on biofuels of all kinds. We are an agricultural state with lots and lots of biomass of all kinds, including waste from agricultural products, street and highway brush cuttings, waste from lumber and paper production, and naturally occurring plants that need virtually no fertilizer, irrigation, or cultivation. Wisconsin is in an ideal situation to both produce biomass and do the research to make sure that the plant is both energy and economically efficient and sustainable.

(How ironic that the Wisconsin Bioenergy Institute announced a grant program the day before Walker pulled the plug on a coal to biomass conversion on the UW campus. The grant they announced seeks a small, older coal or oil-fired facility in northern Wisconsin that could be converted to biomass.)

But that's all gone now. No jobs producing biomass. No home-town heating plant to test the efficiencies. No flexibility in fuel source, should natural gas prices soar. Less fuel security from a local source. All that design work down the tubes.

This seems to be the hallmark of the new Walker administration: It doesn't matter that a project has been planned, designed, voted on, budgeted, and started, we need to kill it if it will save a few dollars next year. it doesn't matter that this project will create jobs here in Wisconsin, if the left likes it, or it benefits Democratic strongholds like Madison and Milwaukee, kill it. Even if the project will possibly save billions of dollars in the next thirty years, we can't afford it now.

This is the sort of thinking that has gotten corporate American into so much trouble: Think only of the next quarter and the dividends of the investors next year. Forgot long term investment that may pay off in ten years, leave those to the Europeans and Asians. We can always play catch-up.

Intercity trains. Biomass heating plants. What's next?

I've been thinking of an analogy that individuals might understand, a decision they might make to save a little money now, but that will mean possibly decades of lost money down the road. Not too many things we purchase can't be changed, sold, or upgraded. If a pair of shoes falls apart, because we saved a little money, well, we are out the price of the shoes. We all know that buying the cheap brand isn't always a bargain.

But as I sit at home, on this frigid morning, in my drafty 1922 house (which I generally love), I think I found the right analogy. I replaced my old, wooden storm and screen windows about 15 years ago. I was tired of climbing up on the ladder each spring and fall to physically change the heavy outer windows. The screens were ripped on some of the frames, and it all seemed too much trouble. I replaced them with new, combination storm/screens, ones that I could slide up and down from the comfort of my house. But I didn't get the really energy efficient, double pane, expensive windows, because I was tight on money. Natural gas was cheap, and I have lived in drafty houses my whole life. "No big deal," I thought, "How bad could it be?"

Pretty bad. Now, because of my decision to save maybe $1000-$1500 on the whole house, my heating bills are hundreds of dollars more each year, and the cost of replacing those windows has skyrocketed by thousands of dollars. But I could actually still replace the windows.

Now imagine building a whole house that is drafty and poorly insulated from the start. Sure, it would be cheaper, but those heating bills would eat up your savings pretty fast. And your heating fuel might get even more expensive. Then you'd be faced with continuing high heating bills, or going back to do an expensive fix, like adding insulation and new windows. Wouldn't it be better to build it right the first time?

Penny wise, and pound foolish, Governor Walker. I hope the people of Wisconsin remember who killed the train and the flex-fuel heating plant. We'll have a new governor by then, but your decisions will be a burden on us for decades.

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