Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

The Renewable Energy Transition at Work In Wisconsin: It's Complicated

By Tina Casey

When President Trump promised to bring coal jobs back, he may have hedged a bit. Jobs in coal production have ticked up temporarily, but jobs in the renewable energy sector are surging while jobs at U.S. coal power plants evaporate. In the latest development, last week Wisconsin's WE Energies announced that it will shut down its massive 1,190-megawatt Pleasant Prairie coal power plant in Wisconsin by next summer, terminating 158 jobs there.

In an interesting twist, the Pleasant Prairie announcement comes on the heels of a decision by China's Foxconn to establish a major new manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. Just a few years ago the sudden loss of 1,190 megwatts in capacity would have caused nerves to fray among Wisconsin's energy planners. Well, that was then...

It's official: renewable energy is a player

Throughout the Obama administration, cheap natural gas was the driving force behind coal plant closures. Older coal plants built decades ago are nearing the end of their intended lifespans, and refurbishing a coal power plant is an expensive proposition. For plant operators, the economics favor switching to natural gas.

Aside from the low cost of fuel, gas turbines also provide for greater responsiveness and flexibility than coal. Gas stakeholders are building a case that gas power plants are more compatible with renewable energy and microgrid technology.

Another important factor in coal plant retirement is slow or no growth in demand for grid electricity. That's largely attributed to energy efficiency improvements and broader economic trends related to the manufacturing sector.

As for renewable energy, despite all the excitement over this new wind farm or that new solar cell, until very recently renewables played little or no role in coal plant closures.

That has begun to change. Wind and solar are competitive with coal in some markets, as demonstrated by the Pleasant Prairie closure. Distributed renewables could also have an impact on demand for grid energy.

So, it's no surprise that WE Energies credited the falling cost of renewable energy along with the usual suspects -- cheap natural gas and slack demand -- for the Pleasant Prairie closure.

The natural gas ball and chain

The Pleasant Prairie closure is also interesting because it illustrates the limits of switching to natural gas from coal.

WE Energies is part of the WEC Energy Group, which lists a total of nine utilities in its portfolio. All together they serve 4.4 million customers in Wisconsin and the three surrounding states of Michgan, Illinois and Minnesota.

The Pleasant Prairie power plant could be a giant step forward in WEC's efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. The plant's current emissions total about 7.5 millions of carbon dioxide annually, and that single source accounts for a majority of WE Energie's carbon emissions.

However, WEC won't realize the full carbon benefit of the closure. WEC has announced plans to add 350 megawatts in solar energy in Wisconsin over the next couple of years, but it will also add new natural gas power units in the state. Emissions related to the new gas power units will counterbalance the carbon impact of the Pleasant Prairie closure.

Natural gas is billed as "cleaner" fuel than coal, but it is responsible for high risk impacts including methane emissions all along the supply chain, from drilling to transmission, storage and distribution. Other local impacts associated with natural gas drilling and waste disposal include air quality, water resources and seismic hazards.

With this in mind it's instructive to look at nearby Minnesota, where the availability and low cost of wind energy will provide for the shutdown of a 200-megawatt coal power plant by 2019. That's far ahead of the plant's previously planned retirement date of 2034.

Coal jobs vs. manufacturing jobs

The new Foxconn facility also demonstrates how renewable energy is factoring into site selection for new manufacturing facilities.

Foxconn manufactures LCD screens for electronics, and the company counts Apple among its high profile clients. The proposed Wisconsin facility has been barraged with criticism partly due to Foxconn's poor CSR track record in its home country China, and partly due to the tax giveaways the company won from state officials.

Nevertheless, the Wisconsin project appears to be on track, and it will bring a reported 13,000 jobs to Wisconsin.

In a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou listed a dozen reasons why Foxconn settled on the Wisconsin location. Renewable energy was among them:

The availability and reliability of energy in the state will be a key asset for the company, Gou said. Renewable energy will be an important part of the company’s future, he said.

Gou also noted that several important corporate partners are also based in Wisconsin, including at least one -- Johnson Controls -- that is deeply enmeshed with renewable energy technology.

Another related factor is high efficiency, robotics-based advanced manufacturing, an area in which Gou anticipates that Wisconsin already has an edge.

In addition, Foxconn is eyeing the state's tech savvy workforce, including military veterans:

The state has a strong university and technical college systems that can be leveraged to develop the high-tech workforce the company will need. “We want to hire returning soldiers,” Gou said.

With all this in mind, it's worth noting that the 158 coal jobs lost at Pleasant Prairie will be more than offset by the 13,000 jobs Foxconn anticipates at the new facility.

Wisconsin may end up getting the short end of the stick on the Foxconn deal, but the state's renewable energy sector -- including an educated workforce and related supporting industries -- looks set to attract more manufacturing jobs with or without fossil fuels.

Photo (screenshot): via WE Energies.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey