Columbia County officials have been contemplating what is in store for citizens getting power once the coal-powered power plant is retired. There is worry about electricity as well as a drop in utility aid funds of about $1.7 million annually.
In February, Alliant Energy announced it was closing the Columbia Energy Center in the town of Pacific. It is the company’s last coal-fired facility in Wisconsin. Company officials said the move is in line with the company’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2050 as they shift to renewable energy sources.
The power plant opened in 1975 and, when operating a full capacity, can generate over 1,100 megawatts of energy.
County Comptroller Lois Schepp addressed the utility aid funds to the County Board last month. She said the options for the current site of the power plant would need to be turned into an alternate revenue source for the county or the county will need to explore cutting services.
“No one has the services to cut right now,” Schepp said. She said the county will lose $850,000 in utility aid payment in 2023 when the first unit at the power plant is set to be retired. The second unit is set to be retired in 2024 and they will lose another $850,000.
“Because Wisconsin utilities are exempt from property taxes, they are taxed by the state based on gross receipts (utility revenues). This tax, also referred to as a license fee, is paid in lieu of property tax,” Schepp said.
She said the funds will go through a five-year phase out period. In the first year, the county will receive 100% of funds and 80% of the funds in the second year and in the fifth year the county is set to receive 20% of the funds.
Schepp told the county board it was unclear if the phase out will begin when the first unit is retired or the second unit. But that is not the only concern for the comptroller.
“At this point we don’t know where we will be getting our power from after the site is retired,” Schepp said.
Eric Sandvig, Director of Operations with Alliant Energy said Columbia County and all customers currently receiving power from the Columbia power plant will be reconnected to the main power grid and those decisions will be finalized by Midcontinent Independent System Operator or MISO.
“MISO is responsible for the grid in our region,” Sandvig said.
Sandvig said residents and businesses have nothing to worry about when it comes to having power once the Columbia plant is closed. He said the retirement dates of 2023 and 2024 are not firm retirement dates. The timetable could change due to state or regional regulatory reviews.
He said the closing the Columbia County plant follows Alliant’s Clean Energy Vision, including a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 and eliminating all coal from its generation fleet by 2040.
Sandvig said a primary reason for shifting to renewable energy, like wind and solar forms of energy, is best for the customer.
“There are a lot of ongoing costs with using coal,” Sandvig said. “Renewables is simply the smartest economic choice for the customers.”
Alliant is in early discussions with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the county about what will happen with the 3,000-acre site. Columbia County officials were not pleased with the lack of information about Alliant’s plan.
“They’ve been very tight-lipped with their plans so far,” County Chair Vern Gove said. “We would hope they will level the site, but it’s unknown.”
Gove, Schepp and Sandvig all agreed the DNR will be heavily involved in the decision making. County officials were worried about the complexities of transitioning a single-use building into a different commercial use.
“We will continue to work with the DNR and Columbia County officials throughout the process,” Sandvig said.
“Our hope is that the building will be leveled and the site will be open,” Schepp said. “Then we will be able to do something with the site that will be beneficial to the county.”
Schepp told the county board the best thing would be to turn the site into a revenue source to cover the utility funds they will lose in the future.