Lassa: Clean Energy Needs to Come Home
By Julie Lassa, Special to the City-Times
I had a great time last weekend at the 25th Annual Midwest Renewable Energy Association fair in Custer, in the northeast corner of the 24th Senate District. It’s always a fascinating place to visit, since it brings together thousands of people from all over the country to see the latest in wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy technologies, as well as related items such as electric cars, energy efficient fixtures and appliances, sustainable building methods, and so much more.
But while I was pleased to see many local and regional consultants and vendors, I noticed that nearly all the manufacturing of these clean energy systems was happening far away. Just to take solar power as an example: Many of the photovoltaic panels sold by local vendors are manufactured elsewhere — some in other states, some in Germany or China. If there were any solar panels on display that were manufactured in Wisconsin, I missed them.
I found it interesting that the Wellspring Renewable Energy Program, which started in Milwaukee and is dedicated to promoting a buy-local approach to building solar energy markets, has to source its “locally manufactured” solar panels from manufacturers in Minnesota and Illinois.
It’s a shame, because, as the success of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association demonstrates, Wisconsin is a vibrant and growing market for products and services growing from the clean energy economy. And not long ago, Wisconsin was an acknowledged leader in this area. Our state’s commitment to expanding our use of renewable energy and promoting clean energy production, sustainable transit and energy conservation attracted companies like Inesa, Ingeteam and Talgo to bring manufacturing facilities to Wisconsin. It looked like eco-friendly manufacturing methods and products would become a cornerstone of our future economic growth.
That came to a screeching halt when Gov. Scott Walker’s administration took office in 2011. Even before he was inaugurated, Walker announced he would renege on the state’s contract with Talgo to produce rail cars for use on new high-speed rail lines in Wisconsin. Talgo eventually closed its Wisconsin manufacturing facility and the cars built here were shipped to another state.
Walker’s first budget killed funding for the Green-to-Gold program, a law I introduced with Rep. Corey Mason, D-Racine, that assisted manufacturers to implement energy efficiency or renewable energy measures, retool their existing facilities to manufacture products that support the green economy and start or expand domestic clean energy manufacturing operations. This program was supported by large Wisconsin manufacturers who were having a difficult time sourcing sustainably produced parts and supplies from smaller Wisconsin manufacturers who were part of their supply chain.
The years that followed saw efforts to weaken Wisconsin’s energy conservation standards; prevent the expansion of local transit systems; make it more difficult to build wind energy systems; cut Focus on Energy support for rooftop solar installations; and reduce what utilities pay for electricity they buy from private solar systems.
Wisconsin is paying an economic price for this shortsightedness. To take solar as an example again, nearly 143,000 Americans now have jobs in the solar sector; job growth in the solar industry jumped 20 percent in 2013 and is predicted to climb another 15 percent this year. Statistics are similar for wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sectors.
These are good paying jobs that are going to other states; Minnesota, whose state Department of Commerce and companies were well-represented at the Renewable Energy fair, is reaping the rewards for its wise investment in its clean energy economy, including its Made in Minnesota solar incentive program.
One way Wisconsin could reverse its sub-par job creation performance would be for policymakers to return to a vision of our state as a clean energy leader. The sooner we recapture that vision, the sooner we’ll stop falling behind in innovation, job creation, and energy independence.
Sen. Julie Lassarepresents the 24th Senate District