Snowplows powered by garbage? Dane County invests in renewables

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

Thanks to investments in renewables, Dane County snowplows someday will be powered by garbage.

The county is preparing a set of initiatives addressing climate change. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi wants to take action because he’s tired of waiting.

“State government doesn’t want to do this,” says Parisi. “I think state government is completely wrong.”

The year 2014 was the hottest on record — until 2015.

Moreover, through August, Wisconsin experienced an 11-month streak of record-high monthly temperatures.

“The situation we have is that climate change is occurring and beginning to impact us,” Parisi says. “It will continue to impact us even more in the future. Climate change modeling shows that we’re going to have warmer and wetter winters and springs. We’ve been seeing 100-year floods every six or eight years. So it’s here.”

At the same time, “state government is taking a head-in-the-sand approach to climate change, where it’s to the extreme that state employees are not even allowed to use the term ‘climate change,’” Parisi says, referring to news reports citing an anonymous DNR scientist.

He adds, “And the state has gone so far as to sue … to try to get out of enacting the EPA’s new clean energy plan, which encourages states to wean themselves from fossil fuels.”

Renewable energy sources

Investment in solar energy will be tripled in Dane County — $2 million in 2017 — and excess power will be sold to the grid. The new solar arrays will be placed at the Dane County Job Center and the Dane County Alliant Energy Center.

It is estimated they will decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 777 tons per year.

Combined, the systems will cut direct energy costs by more than $2.1 million over the next 20 years.

The county already has a solar array at a maintenance facility at the Dane County Regional Airport. It was the largest publicly owned solar array in Wisconsin until the county’s new East District Campus opened this year. The campus’ “Green Highway Garage” has more than 800 solar panels.

“The county has invested millions in the last few years in energy efficiency and renewables,” says Parisi.

Besides solar, “we have a plan in place to convert all of our county vehicles to run on compressed natural gas made out of the methane gas from rotting garbage at our landfills. We’ve committed to make that transition by 2023.”

Eventually 75 county vehicles will run on the gas, including snowplows.

“This is the cleanest burning transportation fuel available, even more than an electrical vehicle, because of the prevalence of coal-fired power plants in generating electricity,” says Parisi.

New climate change office

In addition to its focus on renewables, the county will create a new Office of Energy and Climate Change.

“I believe we may be first in the state to do something like this,” says Parisi.

The new Energy and Climate Change office will examine issues within the purview of county government and also analyze operations. A director will be hired early next year to work with a new Community Council on Climate Change.

The council will include environmentalists, business people and representatives from utilities and nonprofits who will be tasked with mapping a greenhouse gas reduction strategy.

The La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will assist in the effort.

In a prepared statement, Mark Redsten, president of Clean Wisconsin, said, “Dane County is poised to be Wisconsin’s leader in addressing climate change, the greatest environmental threat of this century.”

Besides safeguarding the environment, Parisi says the initiative makes economic sense.

“Wisconsin has no coal. Wisconsin has no oil,” he says. “The hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on fossil fuels go right out of our state and out of our country, and do us no good economically.”