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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The village of Altweidelbach in Germany leased land for windmills to a power company; annual revenue from the leases provided funds to build the town hall. © Wolfgang Hoffmann
The village of Altweidelbach in Germany leased land for windmills to a power company; annual revenue from the leases provided funds to build the town hall.

© Wolfgang Hoffmann

February 2003

A fresh look at energy

Renewable energy and conservation are bigger parts of the energy mix in Germany. Can we do it here?

Natasha Kassulke

second in a two-part series

Wind | Fuel cell innovation
Ensuring a "bright" future for Wisconsin
Changing the nature of business
Inside three German family homes | Helpful energy websites

Part One: "The complex business of keeping the lights on"

In the December 2002 issue, we introduced some of the energy challenges Wisconsin faces and reported on innovations used in Germany to create a cleaner, more reliable energy supply. In this issue, we look at the role of renewable energy sources – wind, solar, biomass – as alternates to additional coal-fired power plants. When considered in conjunction with energy conservation, renewables can take a big bite out of future energy demand. However, costs rise when electricity goes green.

According to Datamonitor, a market researcher, 37 percent of customers in Germany and 46 percent in the United Kingdom said they would pay up to 10 percent more for green energy. Are people in Wisconsin willing to do the same?


In rural areas of Germany – and especially in the windy north – it is not uncommon to see dozens of 200-foot-tall wind generators dotting the landscape. In fact, with nearly 10,000 wind farms, Germany is number one worldwide in wind power production. With a total capacity of more than 6,100-megawatts these wind generators meet 2.5 percent of the German electricity demand.

While wind power is bound to increase as a result of the Renewable Energies Act of 2000, the potential for even wider scale growth has been dependent on land with access to prevailing winds. Many coastal areas offer large wind-energy potential from offshore systems.

Some of the largest wind turbines stand 325 feet tall, with blades 170 feet in diameter. Depending on model and wind speed, each turbine can produce enough electricity to annually power about 450 homes. To generate electricity, wind turbines require a wind speed of nine to nearly 60 mph. A smaller, 75-foot blade can maintain about 29 revolutions per minute.

These are not the old Dutch-style windmills. They are sleek, tower-mounted blades that look like airplane propellers. These windmills can produce electricity without emissions that contribute to air pollution. However, windmills bring other controversies in Germany, just as they have in Wisconsin. Some consider them eyesores, complain about the sound and the shadows created by the blades. Others worry about injury to birds. Design and careful siting are paramount to address these concerns.

Although you can hear the sound of the rotor blades, the noise level of modern turbines is lower than that of a normal conversation 325 feet from the turbine. Federal law requires that wind generators not exceed 35 dB in residential areas and 45 dB in industrial areas 600 meters away. For comparison, a nearby whisper is about 20 dB, normal conversation is about 60 dB and busy street traffic emits about 70 dB of sound.

Many windmills are now designed with underground wires to minimize birds' interest in perching on them. And their appearance seems to be a matter of personal opinion.

"I think they are okay," Franz Rudolf, a tax lawyer from Dusseldorf, says while watching some windmills at work at a roadside rest area. "You cannot put all your eggs in one basket. To just rely on nuclear or oil is the wrong thing. Wind is another part of the mix – another possibility to create energy into the future."

In the small village of Altweidelbach in Western Germany, windmills bring revenue to the 250 residents and the church, which are leasing their land to wind companies. Each wind tower requires about 2.5 acres of land. While a wind farm can cost millions – about $750,000 for each windmill – maintenance costs are minimal.

Mayor Peter Geller says since 1999 the church has leased land for two windmills and the city for five windmills. A 20-year rental contract provides about $3,000 per windmill per year. The lease revenue was used to build a town hall.

"We discussed this with the people here and they are very satisfied," Geller says. "There is some noise from the windmills, but it depends on the wind direction. Some people may have shadow problems if windmills are [sited] near their homes, but we are far enough away that it is no problem."

Geller says even the deer and wild pigs have become accustomed to the windmills and returned to the area within two days – calming the fears of hunters who thought they would be permanently scared off.

Fuel cell innovation

The 250-kilowatt fuel cell located in the Bewag Fuel Cell Innovation Park in Berlin has been running since June 2000 to show the public what a future hydrogen economy could look like. It is complemented by a 10-kilowatt photovoltaics plant.

Fuel cell technology was first developed in 1839 by Welsh justice and physician Sr. William Robert Grove. His contemporaries largely underestimated the importance of his discovery, and fuel cells were forgotten. The technology was resurrected in the 1950s, however, against the backdrop of the Cold War. Space travel and military technology required compact and powerful energy sources and fuel cells fit the description.

Because batteries are too heavy for spacecrafts, NASA decided to use electric power from fuel cells beginning with its Apollo program. Today, energy and space efficient fuel cells are being used for vehicle engines, residential heating, systems as big as power stations and as small as mobile phones and computers.

The Bewag project is a joint venture of five power utilities at a cost of about $350 million – about 40 percent funded by the European Commission since the project is expected to help the regional European economy. The fuel cell is only several feet long – about the size of a bathroom or utility room. The photovoltaic demonstration project is a pyramid-shaped room of glass windows that is no larger than an annex of a large office building and it looks much like a greenhouse.

While there are many types of fuel cells, this one is a PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cell, which is a small space-saving system that operates at about 90 C (194 F). The cell can be used to heat water for residences to 75 C (167 F).

In principle, all fuel cells consist of two electrodes, which are separated by a medium, called an electrolyte, that produces and conducts electricity. Hydrogen (or other fuels such as ethanol, methanol and gasoline that can be converted into hydrogen) is fed to one of the electrodes and oxygen to the other. Without the electrolyte, the two gases would mix and rapidly combust or detonate in a reaction.

The electrolyte (which can be liquid or solid with a membrane structure), causes a controlled electrochemical reaction. Instead of burning violently, hydrogen ions with a positive charge accumulate at one of the electrodes (anode), and negatively charged oxygen ions at the other electrode (cathode). This creates an electrical voltage between the two electrodes, similar to the poles of a battery. This voltage can be put to use by connecting the electrodes to an exterior circuit. The PEM used at Bewag is coated with a thin platinum catalyzer and a gas-permeable electrode made of graphite paper.

A conference room covered in photovoltaic cells at the Bewag power plant in Berlin. © Wolfgang Hoffmann
A conference room covered in photovoltaic cells at the Bewag power plant in Berlin.

© Wolfgang Hoffmann

The fuel cell process basically reverses the process of electrolysis, which many may remember from school experiments. In electrolysis, electric power decomposes water into oxygen and hydrogen. The fuel cell, however, generates electrical power and heat from hydrogen and air.

The fuel cell demonstration we saw was surrounded by an educational park, about the size of an average school playground project. Bright posters explain how fuel cells work. Today, fuel cells have many applications from powering spacecrafts and submarines to running vehicle engines, residential heating systems, mobile phones and computers. Some day large power plants could be replaced by millions of residential fuel cells. A good source of information on fuel cell projects worldwide including the Bewag project in Berlin is Bewag Fuel Cell Innovation Park.

The Munich airport houses a hydrogen fuel cell project that started in 1997 at a cost of $40 million – half funded by the state and half by industries. The project features buses that are powered by fuel cells.

Ensuring a "bright" future for Wisconsin

Already, some of renewable energy innovations and conservation programs are finding a home in Wisconsin, and many utilities are offering green energy to their customers – wind, biomass, hydro and landfill gas power among them.

Perhaps the most popular option is wind power. Where wind blows constantly, an abundant and clean energy source is viable. Wisconsin ranks 18th among the top 20 states for wind energy potential with an estimated annual energy potential of 58 billion kilowatt hours, according to an assessment by Pacific Northwest Laboratory.

Helpful energy websites

For example, Madison Gas and Electric's wind farm is producing energy at a record-setting pace. Wind generated electricity in 2002 was 15 percent higher than expected. MGE owns a 17-turbine wind farm on a high ridge in Kewaunee County, which has sites with some of the best, steady wind supplies in the state. About 4,600 MGE customers have chosen to purchase wind power.

Until the program was filled, MGE offered its customers the option to buy blocks of wind power at $5 per block per month. A block is 150 kilowatt-hours, about 25 percent of the typical MGE residential customer's monthly electric use. Thus, for a $10 per month surcharge in your energy bill, you can have half of your electricity provided by wind power. The program has been very well received and there is a long waiting list of Wisconsin customers who are ready to pay a little more to buy a cleaner energy source.

Alliant Energy Corp., whose customers use five percent of the nation's wind energy, offers its customers the chance to buy 25, 50 or 100 percent of their residential power from renewable sources through the firm's Second Nature program.

In August of 2002, Alliant Energy-Wisconsin Power and Light, RMT, Inc. and the Sauk County Landfill announced plans to capture methane gas produced by decomposing waste and burn it to generate electricity. Eight 30-kilowatt Capstone Microturbines are expected to generate enough electricity to power about 100 average homes.

All 10 high schools in the MGE service area now receive some electricity from the sun. The solar photovoltaic system at Middleton High School was connected in 2002 and completes MGE's solar installations on schools. The rooftop solar systems on the high schools generate electricity and feed live energy and weather data to MGE's website for student research.

Part of Evansville's (Rock County) 2000 referendum to renovate school buildings to make them more energy efficient included installing a geothermal heating system and solar energy in the new high school. Evansville joins Fond du Lac High School as the first two schools in the state to use geothermal heating.

A geothermal system (also called a ground-source heat pump) works because once one drills below the frost line (usually about four- to eight-feet-deep) the earth remains a constant temperature of about 50 degrees throughout the year. Heat, can be taken from the ground through a series of pipes like the condenser on a refrigerator and transferred to the air in homes during the winter and the process can be reversed in summer. According to the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, a geothermal system can lower your heating bills up to 50 percent and lower your cooling bills up to 30 percent.

Fond du Lac draws water for its heat pump from a holding pond, while Evansville draws its heat from a well beneath the soccer field.

The Energy Center of Wisconsin, a research institute in Madison, holds more than 80 education programs annually to introduce Wisconsin communities to energy-saving projects. Among the highlighted projects is Wisconsin's first manure-to-energy digester showcased at Tindale Farms in Kaukauna.

A "We the People/Wisconsin" program (forums for citizens to question political candidates, meet public officials and learn about important policy issues) hosted a "Powering Wisconsin" conference in September 2001. During the conference participants used computer simulators to see how energy choices at home and business combine to affect fuel prices, fuel supply reliability and pollution levels. About 250 citizens from 42 Wisconsin communities plotted a hypothetical energy future for the state at the forum.

The results? People wanted to conserve energy. Instead of increasing energy use that grew about three percent a year during the 1990s, participants opted for choices that would only raise energy consumption from 1 to 2.7 percent annually.

A majority of participants also understood that Wisconsin's system of power lines and pipelines is creaky. Six of seven groups "voted," in some cases by large margins, to build a 1,500-megawatt transmission line. The group that failed to do so was subsequently forced by the computer model to add more in-state power plants, which meant higher bills.

While most groups embraced the need for more power lines, some wanted to make sure the current Duluth-to-Wausau route does as little harm as possible to residents and the environment.

Most groups also loaded their energy packages with power sources they considered environmentally sound, even though hydro, biomass, solar, PV and wind power are much more expensive than coal or natural gas. Conventional coal was the least popular choice. All seven groups voted to retire or retrofit most existing coal-fired plants. Because natural gas was considered a cleaner source, every group voted to increase its use significantly.

But meeting Wisconsin's energy challenges will require a cultural change including teaching people to make energy decisions that cut their energy use at home.

The Wisconsin Department of Administration has announced that the state will pay about $20 million over three years to promote energy conservation as part of the Wisconsin Focus on Energy program. This money will come from fees collected on utility bills – about $2.75 a month on the average customer's utility bill.

Incentive programs can help too. A Wisconsin Electric Power Co. program gave customers savings bonds to replace old appliances. Cash-back rewards and rebates are offered on energy-saving products labeled as Energy Stars. Some new appliances use only a third as much energy as aging models.

New home builders and their contractors can dramatically improve the future energy picture. In 2001, Don Simon Builders built and closed on 251 homes, all of which were Green Built and Wisconsin Energy Star home certified.

"It doesn't really cost any more money to build that way, and it helps homeowners by reducing their energy bills," explains Jeff Simon of Don Simon Builders. Homes that meet the "Green Built" and "Energy Star" standards are 25 to 30 percent more energy efficient than other code-built homes, explains Wisconsin Environmental Initiative executive director John Imes.

Changing the nature of business

The Department of Natural Resources is trying to bring the state to a higher level of environmental protection with proposed legislation called Green Tier.

The Green Tier System Initiative in Wisconsin is voluntary for regulated organizations that want to be exemplary stewards and unregulated organizations that want to cooperate on environmental tasks. Green Tier asks what is the best environmental outcome and uses a contract to make a legal commitment to achieve that outcome. Incentives encourage parties to go beyond compliance and address priority local, regional or state environmental issues, especially those outside regulatory law. It's an idea that is already seeing results in lower emissions in Germany.

In Wisconsin, utilities may also get to experiment with technologies to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent in five years, 50 percent in 10 years and 90 percent in 15 years, if a new proposed state rule goes into effect in 2003. The mercury reductions are intended to help stem the spread of this heavy metal into lakes and food sources. Airborne mercury contaminants from burning coal for energy are deposited in lakes, absorbed in food chains, and have been found in fish in many Wisconsin waterways. This concern has lead to state fish advisories.

In October of 2002, We Energies and the Department of Natural Resources signed a cooperative agreement in which the company will voluntarily reduce power plant emissions over the next 10 years. We Energies will invest $400 to $600 million in environmental improvements at its power plants and cut emissions of mercury by 50 percent, sulfur dioxide by 45 to 50 percent and nitrogen oxides by 60 to 65 percent in the next decade. The company is the first in the state to voluntarily commit to enforceable air quality standards that go beyond current environmental requirements.

Four other companies – MGE of Madison, Cook Composites and Polymers Co. of Saukville, Northern Engraving Corp. of Sparta and Holmen, and Packaging Corporation of America of Tomahawk – have signed agreements to participate in similar pilot programs.

Changing technology also holds promise for reducing pollutant levels from coal-fired power plants. In 2001, Alliant Energy was awarded a $3.7 million federal clean coal grant to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions at the Edgewater Generation Station in Sheboygan. Similar technology cut NOx output in half at the M.L. Kapp Power Station in Clinton, Iowa at a fraction of the cost of installing catalytic equipment more typically used by utilities.

"Our goal is to create a science and technology driven business to re-engineer and reinvent today's power generation industry," says Edmundo Vasquez, general manager of Research and Development for Alliant, which provides electric, natural gas, water and steam services to more than three million customers worldwide.

Wisconsin Energy Corp. of Milwaukee plans to use advanced pulverized coal techniques to make its coal plants proposed at Oak Creek more efficient.

In 2002, another new technology gained wider use in Dairyland. Anaerobic digesters can extract usable energy while decomposing organic wastes. Such digesters hold promise to reduce animal manure odors, pathogens and pollutants while creating local sources of electricity. One natural product of that process, called "biogas," contains 60-70 percent methane, 30-40 percent carbon dioxide and traces of other gases. The Wisconsin Biogas Development Group, a broad-based public-private partnership led by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is working to make this a viable energy source with abundant sources for such fuel statewide.

In speaking to the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative (WEI) Energy Forum in October 2001, then Gov. McCallum reiterated that Wisconsin must diversify energy sources, encourage energy efficiency, increase reliance upon renewables, foster emerging technologies, and be realistic about how to use alternative sources, while keeping reliable energy supplies as our foremost concern. Energy plans formed at the time called for obtaining a modest four percent of state power needs from renewables by 2010.

"Is there an energy crisis?" Peter Asmus, author of "Reaping the Wind" and "Reinventing Electric Utilities" asked a group at the WEI Energy Forum. "Or is this actually an energy opportunity?"

During his talk, Asmus encouraged participants to take advantage of new technologies that offer smarter, cleaner and renewable energy with stable prices and high reliability. As is the case in Germany, he called a diverse and decentralized power source as key.

"Our electricity grid, with its emphasis on large polluting and centralized power plants sending power long distances over transmission lines, is an artifact that is over 100 years old," Asmus notes. "It is dramatically out of sync with information technologies."

Charting Wisconsin's energy future isn't easy. There are still many unknowns. What is known, though, is that people want a safe and reliable energy supply.

"Wisconsin should learn from California," explains Asmus. "The problem is not just a flawed deregulation scheme, but an over reliance upon a single fuel – natural gas – to generate new electricity supply. A new energy democracy that empowers all consumers, large and small, to become part of the solution, is the only way to go to deal with the root of this nation's energy supply dilemma."

Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

Inside three German family homes
The Hoffmans

Martin Hoffmann, a graphic designer, and his wife, Elvira, a midwife, live in a modern duplex in the village of Thalfingen, a suburb of Ulm (southwestern Germany between Stuttgart and Munich) with their children, Jana 15, and Martin Jr., 8.

"We are always sure to shut the door when we come and go to conserve on heating, and we put the lights out when we are not using a room," Jana says sounding like many teenagers in the United States.

The family also uses energy saving bulbs. In Germany people generally support "green" light bulbs, refrigerators and other appliances. These are just coming into vogue in Wisconsin.

According to Alliant Energy in Madison, if you replace a 60-watt incandescent bulb with a 15-watt compact fluorescent bulb (CFB) and use it six hours a day, you can cut $40 off your energy bill over four years. CFBs may be more expensive ($7 to $20 per bulb depending on the wattage), but they can pay for themselves in energy saving in about two years and they'll last for four to five years. Further, energy companies periodically sponsor month-long sales that offer CFBs for the same price or less than incandescent bulbs.

The Hoffmannns only heat the rooms that are being used. They do not heat the bedrooms and rely on warm blankets instead. Coils under the floors carry heat to the bathroom. The kitchen has modern, energy-saving appliances. The refrigerator and freezer are tiny (half the size of those in the U.S.) since the family buys fresh produce almost daily.

The windows and walls are heavily insulated – wall coverings are attractive papers with coconut fiber. Skylights provide solar heat and a view of the stars. The windows also open out at the top and to the sides to offer better ventilation.

The family drives a small Volkswagon Passat with a turbo diesel engine that is fuel-efficient and emits little exhaust fumes. Martin says he gets about 60 miles to the gallon.

They have only owned a clothes dryer for about two years.

"We thought about buying it for a long time because it is a luxury and in the summer I still hang the laundry out to dry," Elvira says. Line-dried laundry is still customary throughout Germany.

The family owns one television and a microwave, which they do not use very often. Like any teen, Jana enjoys watching MTV videos and snowboarding. Martin Jr. likes soccer.

"We take short showers because they are too expensive and waste resources," Jana says.

They share a lawnmower with four other families.

For heat they pay about $1,000 per year and about $700 for electricity [for about how many therms and kW?]. They buy green energy and are willing to pay a little more for it.

"You used to have to buy power from the power plant next to you," Martin explains. "But now you can pick alternatives. The cheap ones we call the dirty ones."

The family estimates that it spends about five percent of its income on heat and electricity.

The Schwerins

Ulrike Schwerin and her husband, Hajo, live near the historic Olympic stadium in Munich.

Their two-bedroom condominium has plenty of room for Ulrike, a bank event planner, and Hajo, a technical schoolteacher, and is located near public transportation to travel to work. Hajo often bikes.

Outside their door, the hallway lights are timed and will go off on their own.

Inside the condo, the kitchen is small with a miniature freezer and refrigerator, dishwasher and microwave. The bathroom features a small, energy-efficient washer/dryer combination – a luxury that they purchased for about $850.

A waste incineration plant supplies their heat and electricity and they pay about $75 every two months for heat and electricity. Energy costs are assessed per square meter of space and their condo is about 92-square-meters (about 990 square feet) including the balcony.

They get added breaks on their bill if they do laundry during non-peak times such as after 10 p.m. They use low consumption light bulbs and eat warm lunches at work, but keep their cooking to a minimum at night.

"We mostly eat bread, cheese and cold meat at night," Ulrike says.

The Weitzels

Hans-Ernst Weitzel and his wife, Ilse, are environmental filmmakers who have traveled the world documenting environmental practices of various cultures. But today, they are applying what they have learned to their own home in the village of Spabrucken in Western Germany.

They live in a very old home – a 400-year-old half-timber house that has been mortared with a clay and straw mixture. The insulation was good but they have made it better.

"Our house is very old and so we had to renovate and thought that we should do it right," Ilse says.

Part of doing it right, meant insulating the roof with fiberglass and the floor with Styrofoam. Windows are double glass insulated. Proper venting keeps the insulation dry.

One of the small heating stoves in the Weitzel home. Family members heat only the rooms they are using. © Wolfgang Hoffmann
One of the small heating stoves in the Weitzel home. Family members heat only the rooms they are using.

© Wolfgang Hoffmann
Solar collectors on the roof heat water for showers and kitchen use. Heating coils under the floor tiles in several rooms keep the solar heating more efficient.

"Part of our routine is to plan showers and laundry when there is hot water from the solar collectors," Ilse says.

Wastewater from dishes and other functions is collected and reused to water plants.

Like the Hoffmanns, they only heat the rooms that they are using. Doors between each room make it easy to seal off unused parts of the house. Laundry is line-dried in the attic rather than in a dryer. They store food in cooler rooms of the house and much of the house is covered in brick and slate to ward off the elements. As a result, they only need a small dorm-room sized refrigerator.

The Weitzels supplement renewable energy with an oil furnace. In winter, two heating stoves provide added warmth. The Weitzels burn compressed coal briquettes and old wood from area orchards.

"When I had a house without insulation I used 5,000 to 6,000 liters of oil per year and it cost 15 cents per liter. Now I'd pay 40 Euro cents per liter," Hans says. (So heating costs zoomed from about $800 per year to $2,000-$2,400 per year.) "It's worth finding alternatives to oil."

The Weitzels admit that they can do all of this because they have time. They recognize that some families cannot chop wood or rearrange their busy schedules to shower when the solar panels are heated up. And because of strict zoning rules, Hans says, houses are not always allowed to be built in the ways that are conducive to collecting solar energy. Where the Weitzels live, homes are built in the valley rather than on the hills. The valley insulates the homes from the wind.

The city of Frieburg won an ecological award because its city development plan optimizes solar energy by allowing builders to rotate the way houses face to get maximum solar gain.

Insulating, using modern efficient heating systems and buying energy-efficient appliances are things that most people can do wherever they live in Germany or Wisconsin.

"About four years ago energy-efficient appliances cost double other models in Germany," Ilse recalls. "Now, they cost only about 10 percent more."

Hans says people save most of their lives for their cars and homes and will not buy many over a lifetime. Cars cost about $20,000 Euros. Homes cost about $250,000.

Like many people, the Weitzels have a long list of renovations they would like to make to their house and are constantly investing in energy efficiency. In time, the renovations pay for themselves. As an incentive to follow suit, German homes without proper insulation can get state support for insulation projects in the form of low interest loans and subsidies.

"These programs only last a few years, though," Hans says. "They are meant to be a jump start."

It's up to the homeowners to take it further and many do.

"They realize that the payoff is greater for the environment and the wallet, than the cost of the investment," Hans says.