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Mixed grades for WI utilities in shifting away from fossil fuels

Solar panels on a roof
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Solar panels on a roof

Some Wisconsin utilities are slow to reduce fossil-fuel dependence, according to new data from the Sierra Club, while others are improving their efforts.

Evaluations included two subsidiaries under WEC Energy. One of them was the state's largest utility, We Energies, which received a "D" grade for plans to transition to wind, solar and other renewable-energy sources. The other subsidiary, Wisconsin Public Service, received the same grade, although it was an improvement over last year.

Elizabeth Ward, the Sierra Club's Wisconsin director, said the actions of the parent company don't match its public messaging.

"WEC has some pretty lofty goals stated about going coal-free," she said, "but when we look at what they're actually doing, they're talking about keeping their Oak Creek coal plant online even longer, and they're proposing more gas throughout the state."

WEC Energy did not respond to a request for comment, but on its website, it maintains it will be in a position to eliminate coal as an energy source by 2035. Under the Paris Agreement, the United States has committed to slashing greenhouse-gas pollution in half by 2030 relative to 2005 levels. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Alliant Energy improved from a "D" grade to a "B" amid investments in solar and battery storage.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year, made hundreds of billions of dollars available to companies to address climate change, but Sierra Club energy campaigns analyst Noah Verbeek said utilities continue to delay a transition to clean energy because of things such as executive pay being linked to fossil fuel-based asset performance.

"We were really hoping to see a lot more progress this year," he said,, "especially given all the federal legislation that has passed and all of the new money that is available to really encourage these utilities to make this shift."

He added that nationwide, people of color and low-income communities continue to be exposed to higher levels of dangerous air pollution than other groups, and are at greater risk for developing chronic illnesses linked to that pollution.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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