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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — It might be a small step, but it’s still a step.
The Dunn County Board’s facilities committee has agreed to begin reviewing sample resolutions and implementation plans with the idea of eventually developing a plan for Dunn County to be “Carbon Free by the Year 2020” and to have county facilities and departments run on 100 percent renewable energy.
Eau Claire was the first city in Wisconsin to pass a resolution for Carbon Free by 2050 when the resolution was approved in 2018, said Kate Beaton, a member of the Eau Claire City Council, who spoke to the facilities committee at the January 27 meeting.
As do the county board and the county board’s committees, the facilities committee met using the online meeting platform Zoom as one way to help slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The county board meetings and the committee meetings are posted as videos on YouTube so people can watch the meetings at their convenience if they are unable to watch at the time of the meeting.
Beaton noted she has worked with nine communities in the past year to help them achieve a vision for transitioning to clean energy.
Clean energy is cheaper than fossil fuels, and it is a better return on investment, she said, noting that clean energy also is responsible for a certain amount of job growth and that it is projected to continue outpacing other job growth.
Eau Claire County approved a clean energy resolution in 2019, while LaCrosse approved a resolution last summer. Dane County has approved a resolution, and Brown County is working on a resolution. The City of Menomonie has also approved a resolution, Beaton said.
The idea is to figure out where you want to be in 30 years on clean energy and to develop a long-range plan to achieve the goal, she said.
A resolution, as a first step, creates a vision for long-range planning, Beaton said, adding that local governments can tailor the planning process to what will work for the local area.
Another first step would be to create a standing committee authorized by the county board to advise the county board on clean energy, she said.
Eau Claire County is in the process of hiring a sustainability coordinator, is planning an inventory of the county’s energy usage and is looking at creating a committee, while LaCrosse is working on creating a committee, Beaton said.
Charles Maves, county board supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the facilities committee, asked for more information about a clean energy committee.
The county board would appoint the committee, and it would be made up of county board members, citizens, representatives of utility companies, such as Xcel Energy, people from the university and other experts in the field who could advise the county board on solutions and policies, Beaton said.
In Eau Claire, Xcel Energy worked with a temporary committee of about 60 people, she noted.
Don Kuether, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the facilities committee, said he has been part of a temporary committee in Menomonie of about 15 people who have met twice.
The Menomonie committee includes people from UW-Stout, citizens and industry, and the facilitator for the committee is in the process of writing a report, he said.
Kuether said he believes the next step for Menomonie is forming a standing committee to advise the city council.
Tim Niehoff, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the facilities committee, asked how a Dunn County Clean Energy by 2050 initiative would be different from Xcel Energy’s Clean Energy by 2050.
Both would have the same goal of becoming carbon free, Maves said.
The county’s role would be as a leader to set an example with county buildings. The county would not be telling private citizens they must use renewable energy, he said.
Maves noted Dunn County Transit is in the process of obtaining an electric bus.
Dunn County also has already gathered some information on energy usage for county buildings, he said.
The facilities committee should have “the start of a discussion” to see how Dunn County might fit in with Clean Energy by 2050, Maves said.
Eau Claire has a partnership with Xcel Energy and donated land at an old landfill for Xcel Energy to build a solar garden, Beaton said.
The City of Eau Claire will get energy from Xcel in exchange for the land. The city also plans to install a geothermal system for the library, she said.
The goal for Clean Energy by 2050 does not mean the county is forcing people to install solar panels. The county is leading on policy and how to invest in resources, Beaton said.
The county could set a good example and be a leader, Kuether said, noting that he is hoping the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department will begin using hybrid vehicles.
Dunn County has already installed geothermal systems in two buildings and is using LED lights, he said.
“Dunn County has already done a lot but could do more,” Kuether said.
How far would the county plan to go? Would Dunn County create zoning for energy generation? asked Dave Bartlett, county board supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the Dunn County Board.
Bartlett, who lives in the Town of Sheridan, noted that some residents in St. Croix County were adamantly opposed to wind turbines and that some people also do not want solar farms in their backyard.
In 2015, Dunn County amended the zoning ordinance to accommodate renewable energy. Zoning makes designations for small, medium and large renewable energy footprints and outputs, said Bob Colson, Dunn County zoning administrator, pointing out that Dunn County had worked with Xcel Energy on amending the ordinance.
A small designation would be a house, while a medium designation would be a commercial application and a large designation would be industrial, Colson said.
The county amended the zoning ordinance to start getting ready for renewable energy, he said.
Mike Rogers, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the facilities committee, said he was in favor of pursuing renewable energy because it reduces dependence on foreign oil.
Renewable energy is more than an environmental issue — it is also an economics issue, he said, adding that he supports renewable energy when it is done “according to a plan.”
Rogers asked what is significant about having renewable energy by 2050.
Using the year 2050 is about setting a vision, Beaton said.
If 60 percent or 80 percent of the energy usage is renewable by 2050, “it’s still a win,” she said.
The world is already experiencing increased flooding and droughts from climate change and more diseases from insects, such as ticks and mosquitoes, as well as adverse impacts on water quality, Beaton said.
Does the facilities committee want to form a committee? Is the committee interested in moving forward with creating a resolution for the Dunn County Board’s consideration? Is Clean Energy by 2050 something to pursue? Maves asked.
Dunn County would need a plan to accomplish a set goal, he noted.
Rogers wondered about costs associated with proceeding forward.
“There’s always a cost,” Maves said.
The county has already spent money on the time of county staff to do an energy survey. Additional costs would depend on the plan. Will parts of the plan become line items in the county’s budget? Maves said.
“It’s a good point for discussion,” he said.
Niehoff said he believed there would be a benefit to forming a committee.
If the county develops a plan, then the county can develop a budget for going forward with the plan and have a goal to attain, he said.
Starting a committee would be a good start to forming a plan, said Ron Score, county board supervisor from Boyceville and a member of the facilities committee.
Getting ideas from other counties also would be useful, he said.
Maves said he was in favor of pursuing renewable energy and that it would justify the time and the effort.
Facilities committee members should read through the information Kuether has provided to committee members that includes resolutions and implementation plans from other municipalities, he said.
Facilities committee members can decide what they like about the Eau Claire County resolution and the City of Eau Claire and LaCrosse, he said.
“We can take bits and pieces and start moving forward,” he said.