New Wisconsin governor ends UW-Madison biomass project

By Anna Austin | January 24, 2011

A biomass power project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been nixed by new Republican Gov. Scott Walker, on account of the project’s high cost.

Projected to top out at a price tag about $251 million, the plan was to replace the university’s coal-burning boilers with natural gas furnaces initially, and then in a second phase to occur by late 2013, annually combust about 250,000 tons of wood chips, ag residue and switchgrass pellets.

The project was heavily endorsed by Wisconsin’s former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who had a goal of drastically decreasing the amount of coal burned in the state. While the facility will no longer use coal, it will still remain reliant on a sole fossil fuel—natural gas.

Walker’s administration estimates the move to just natural gas will save the state about $75 to $80 million. While saving taxpayer dollars, the cancellation marks the second axed large-scale biomass power project in the state in recent months. In November, power utility Xcel Energy announced it would not convert its coal-fired power plant in Ashland, Wis., to biomass as had been proposed for several years prior, but would instead turn to natural gas because of higher than anticipated project costs.

Wisconsin biomass proponents say the state has vast biomass resources for renewable energy projects, which could be used to create new, green jobs. Despite the UW-Madison plans being cancelled, it hasn’t dampened their spirits.

“We’re disappointed that it didn’t go forward, but we understand the financial situation the state is in,” said Troy Runge, director of the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative. The WBI, which was assisting UW-Madison with planning necessary to purchasing its biomass fuel, is a university-based coalition that helps commercialize and promote bio-based solutions across Wisconsin.

“We’re hopeful that there are a lot of other potential biomass energy projects in the state—there are about 108 boilers across Wisconsin that are smaller scale and we’re hoping they get accelerated in consideration for biomass, which Wisconsin has a lot of,” Runge said. “We think state projects are great demonstration projects, and maybe a smaller-scale one can get accelerated.”

Runge emphasized that it is always risky for new developers to have to make assumptions about supply chains. “The first projects have to bear that risk, and there’s a cost with risk,” he said. “The more projects you get under your belt, the risk goes down and the easier it is to go forward.”

While reiterating WBI’s disappointment in the elimination the UW-Madison biomass component, Runge pointed out that there are still a few larger projects on state’s plate. These include the DTE Energy’s operational 40-megawatt biomass power plant in Cassville, Alliant Energy’s continued biomass test burns at its Cassville plant, and We Energies’s proposed plant in Domtar, which is undergoing a vote by state regulators in coming weeks.

Overall, smaller-sized biomass projects may be the ones that are able to pan out first and serve as demonstrations to the rest of the state, according to Runge. “If there are some [smaller] projects we can get, we’ll stay positive and look to where we can make a difference,” he added.