Power to the People: The Case for Publicly-Owned Utilities

by Søren Warland

Soren Warland is a recent graduate of UW Madison, an environmental activist, and member of the Sierra Club.

Alliant Energy has made plans to close its Edgewater coal plant, and this is a victory for both public health and our fight to prevent catastrophic climate change. Yet the closure of the Edgewater plant also points towards the dire need for Alliant, MGE, and WPS to close the Columbia power plant as well. As long as this coal-fired plant continues to operate, Madison residents and other Wisconsinites bear the costs to their health and finances. In addition, they are also forced to rely on an energy source that contributes to climatic destabilization worldwide.

The current pandemic has highlighted the dire need to shift away from the usage of coal, the dirtiest fuel source. A recent Harvard study discovered that the air pollution stemming from coal plants can increase the rate of death from Covid-19 by almost 10%. The people who suffer the most from both toxic air and Covid-19 transmission are those that can least afford to contend with the medical complications from contact both of these sources of illness. It is unacceptable that the most vulnerable of our society are saddled with the dire health effects of coal usage. Continued operation of the Columbia power plant prolongs the disease burden inflected on these individuals.

If the Columbia power plant is allowed to operate until 2030, then ratepayers will collectively lose an estimated $257 million. Working-class folks who are barely getting by as it is can’t afford that kind of sum, stolen from them in the form of high energy rates.

The Columbia power plant is the top emitter of pollution in Wisconsin, releasing poisonous coal ash into the waters surrounding its place of operation. It is not the wealthy utility company executives who bear the health costs from this toxin, but regular people already at an economic disadvantage. Groundwater pollution from Columbia’s coal ash was discovered in 2010, and yet this plant is still allowed to spew its carcinogenic material into our precious waterways. By only closing down the Edgewater coal plant, we allow Columbia to continue releasing its toxins into Wisconsin communities.

The use of coal plants doesn’t just burden people with respiratory issues and other health problems. The operation of coal plants such as Edgewater and Columbia also takes desperately-needed money out of Wisconsinites’ pocketbooks as well. Contrary to what fossil fuel executives would like you to believe, it is not wind and solar that are expensive and uneconomical fuel sources, but coal. In 2019, the Columbia and Edgewater power plants lost a collective $16 million. This loss was, naturally, foisted upon the plants’ customers in the form of high fuel costs. If the Columbia power plant is allowed to operate until 2030, then ratepayers will collectively lose an estimated $257 million. Working-class folks who are barely getting by as it is can’t afford that kind of sum, stolen from them in the form of high energy rates.

In addition to health complications and excessive energy costs, usage of the Columbia power plant also contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions that are setting humanity on the course for catastrophe. A warming climate means a destabilized agricultural system, increased transmission of parasitic diseases, and deadly heat waves. All of these consequences will only serve to increase the inequality that is already rampant in our political-economic system. The Columbia coal plant must be shut down, so that we can take one small step towards achieving a renewable, just future.

The fact that toxic power sources such as the Columbia and Edgewater power plants still operate underscores the need to make out utilities publicly owned. Madison residents don’t want to be reliant on dirty, outdated modes of energy. Yet when our utilities fall under the ownership of a privately-held company, we have little choice but to use the energy sources that our utility providers give to us. Instead of making decisions to benefit the fortunes of a few wealthy members on a board of directors, communities with publicly-owned utilities can use the revenue from energy sales to invest in their own communities. Instead of profits going into the pocketbooks of rich shareholders in a different city, publicly-owned utilities allow communities to get energy at lower prices, or pay for projects such as low-income housing. Converting Alliant, MGE, and WPS into public utilities would allow Madison residents to transition to renewable energy on a faster scale, and make decisions about their energy portfolio democratically. We should not allow a few individuals to stand in the way of Madison’s green energy future.

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