The state's utility regulator is planning to spend more money on energy projects in rural Wisconsin, including a plan to help underwrite the use of systems that convert cattle manure into electricity.
The state Public Service Commission voted on Thursday to authorize at least $7.7 million in funding for rebates for solar, wind and geothermal projects around the state that would keep in place a rebate program for energy consumers.
The program, Focus on Energy, provided $8.5 million in rebates over the past two years.
The commission also decided to increase funding for systems known as manure digesters that convert animal waste to electricity. The digesters also serve a dual role of helping farms manage manure, which has become an increasingly controversial issue in Wisconsin as the size of dairy farms grows.
The commission says it is considering spending $10 million to $20 million on manure digester technology and will lead efforts with other state agencies to encourage the use of the equipment.
One potential target, according to commission PSC Chairwoman Ellen Nowak, is Kewaunee County in northeastern Wisconsin — a region that has become a flashpoint over the impact of manure spreading on groundwater.
The county has an abundance of thin soils, fractured bedrock and a large cattle population, which has created conditions that have polluted wells and surface waters.
The Department of Natural Resources led a public-private task force this year on manure handling practices in Kewaunee County, where strategies to tackle manure contamination were discussed.
Tressie Kamp, an attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates, said she was cautiously optimistic about Thursday's decision. But she emphasized that manure digesters do not, themselves, strip nutrients such as phosphorus from manure.
Nutrients, a key source of fertilizer for crops, also can spur algae growth and harm aquatic habitat if used in excess.
Carrie Loboski, a soil scientist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agreed that digesters don't remove phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients. Instead, a separate system also needs to be in place that splits out solids and liquids in manure, allowing farmers to manage their waste stream and keep excess nutrients from being applied to the soil.
John Holevoet, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, said manure digesters have fallen out of favor with farmers in recent years because the prices they receive from utilities for generating electricity have fallen and often do not cover their costs.
The commission's actions on Thursday came as part of an investigation into how to expand access to the energy efficiency and renewable energy programs offered by Focus on Energy in rural areas, especially where there is a lack of high-speed internet service.
Nowak said concerns raised by some advocacy groups that the commission was intending to use money collected on ratepayer bills for expansion of broadband were misplaced.
"This is not about spending on broadband infrastructure," she said. "This is about expanding the role that broadband can play in promoting energy efficiency and removing barriers to energy efficiency."
Instead, the commission is looking to enhance energy efficiency in conjunction with federal grants that are expected to result in expanded broadband service in rural parts of the state.
The commission has ordered Chicago Bridge & Iron, the manager of the Focus on Energy program, to come up with proposals to spend between $20 million and $35 million in rural parts of Wisconsin on energy efficiency programs tied to expanding broadband service.
These programs could include smart thermostats that help customers monitor their energy use and costs and manage their home energy use via smartphones and other devices. A smart-thermostat pilot program launched by Focus on Energy was popular and CB&I had sought to expand it statewide, but the PSC opted against doing that until a review of that pilot was completed.