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Elizabeth Koehler: Where renewable energy goes in Wisconsin will be key | Column

Elizabeth Koehler

In an election year, jobs and the economy are always top of mind. This year is no different, except that clean energy — especially Wisconsin’s transition to renewables — must share top billing.

Clean energy is critical to a strong, thriving and competitive economy. It also will help us take an essential step in reducing the carbon emissions that are fueling climate change.

The United States can reach 90% clean electricity by 2035 at no extra cost to consumers while supporting 530,000 new jobs per year and cutting carbon emissions by 27% according to studies including the 2035 report from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California-Berkeley. The Inflation Reduction Act, recently passed by Congress, will dramatically reshape and expand tax credit incentives for a broad range of renewable energy resources, drawing sharp focus on the economic benefit of renewables.

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Here in Wisconsin, we are poised to take advantage of clean energy opportunities. Gov. Tony Evers’ Clean Energy Plan provides a roadmap to clean electricity with realistic strategies. At The Nature Conservancy, we particularly like that the plan prioritizes reducing the disproportionate impacts of the generation and use of energy on low-income communities and communities of color.

Another important consideration is the renewable energy buildout, which isn’t merely on its way, it’s already here. Developments are in the works across the Midwest. All the benefits outlined in the UC-Berkeley study can — and likely will — be achieved, but not without huge land-use challenges.

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Renewable energy projects such as wind and solar require a lot of land. Princeton University estimates a footprint equaling the total land mass of Colorado and Wyoming — that’s more than 200,000 square miles — will be necessary to reach climate goals.

A sustainable buildout of renewable energy must avoid the environmental and social conflicts that can come with putting projects in poor locations, such as important wildlife habitats.

Achieving a successful buildout will require smart siting approaches that select and install renewable energy projects with local community and government support. The Nature Conservancy developed the first free and science-based mapping tool, called Site Renewables Right (, to help companies and communities identify the most promising places to develop renewable energy while avoiding impacts to important wildlife habitats.

In addition to limiting environmental impact, smart siting keeps costs low and helps increase the chance of completion. Projects by renewable installation companies that haven’t done their siting “homework” often cost more, take longer and sometimes aren’t done.

Making the transition to clean energy will be critical for Wisconsin’s economy. How we make that transition will be just as important to ensure that our communities, wildlife and natural areas are protected.

Koehler is the Wisconsin state director of the The Nature Conservancy:

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