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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
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A coal plant wrapped in green
Former Sierra Club leader draws flak for backing Alliant project
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Brett Hulsey calls it 'a step in the right direction.'
Brett Hulsey calls it 'a step in the right direction.'

Dane County Supv. Brett Hulsey has always been an environmentalist. He backed the county's ban on phosphorous in fertilizer. He helped put $15 million in the county's 2009 budget for water quality initiatives. He's currently proposing a ban on diesel truck idling (see next item).

So why is Hulsey working as a paid consultant for Alliant Energy, pushing for a new coal-fired power plant in Cassville?

"It's a step in the right direction," insists Hulsey, who supports the new plant because it will burn 80% coal and 20% biomass, such as switch grass, corn husks or wood chips. "This is an opportunity to start moving away from coal and toward greener sources of energy."

And Cassville, in Grant County, is the ideal location, he says. The new Alliant plant will need between 300,000 and 400,000 tons of biomass annually to reach its 20% target; Grant County has nearly 700,000 tons available. "Grant County leads the state with the most biomass," says Hulsey.

But environmental groups including the Sierra Club, where Hulsey used to work, vehemently oppose the new plant. "They're using biomass as an excuse to bring in tons of more coal," says Jennifer Feyerherm of the Sierra Club in Wisconsin. "Right now, they're wrapping a coal plant in a green ribbon."

The Sierra Club doubts the Cassville plant will burn 20% biomass. It notes that Alliant's original application to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission said it would burn only 10%. And Feyerherm says Alliant recently told the Iowa Public Utilities Board it can't meet its 10% goal for a plant located there.

Hulsey says the 10% figure in Alliant's application to the PSC was necessary because its boiler manufacturer won't guarantee the warranty above 10%. He's confident Alliant can meet its 20% goal: "If anybody can do it, they can do it."

Feyerherm says it's ludicrous to believe Alliant will burn 20%. "Something that violates its warranty? Do you really believe that's what they're going to do?"

She's also peeved that Hulsey recently appeared in radio ads touting the plant, identifying himself as a former Sierra Club official. "I think it's shameful that Brett and Alliant would use the Sierra Club's name."

Hulsey apologized, but says environmentalists must start working with energy companies to create change. "If we're going to solve the energy problem, we need to help them do their job," he says, adding that he became a consultant to help companies find practical solutions. "I'm trying to lead the bioeconomy and I feel that others are just throwing rocks."

Don't keep on trucking

Hulsey calls his ordinance to ban idling by commercial diesel trucks "the number-one thing we can do to reduce air pollution and save lives in Dane County." He modeled it after a similar ban in Illinois.

But some truckers are sounding an alarm. "Idling ordinances are a big inconvenience for drivers," says Tim Klingbiel of Madison, who drives a moving truck cross-country for North American Van Lines.

Drivers often sleep in the cab and keep the engine on for heat or air conditioning. Hulsey's ordinance would let drivers run the engine for 15 minutes if the outside temperature rises above 80 degrees or falls below 40 degrees. And the ban does not apply when the temperature dips to 10 degrees. But Klingbiel says that's not good enough.

"If it's 45 degrees and I'm in Dane County, then I have to sleep in a 45-degree truck?" he asks. "I won't sleep well, and if I have to drive the next day, then I won't be safe."

The ordinance would not apply to the city of Madison, so Klingbiel says a driver looking to sleep will simply go into the city, instead of pulling over on the highway. "He's going to park on East Washington. He's going to idle his truck there and get a good night's sleep. So is this really a good idea?"

Absentee ballots wrong

Carole McGuire of Madison recently tried to vote absentee, but she noticed something wrong with her ballot: "It didn't have the school referendum on it."

McGuire, a former County Board supervisor, says her son, who lives at the same address in south Madison, received the correct absentee ballot.

Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl explains: "There are eight school districts in the city of Madison and quite a few wards that are split into two school districts. When we run the labels for absentee ballots, the labels don't have the school districts printed on them."

The clerk's office sorts the labels by school district so people receive the correct ballots, but mistakes were made. Witzel-Behl says she's heard from half a dozen people who received the wrong ballot. She thinks it's "unlikely" that many more people were affected.

The city has sent out 13,000 absentee ballots so far. Voters who receive the wrong ballot can receive a correct one by contacting the city clerk's office.

Witzel-Behl says she's repeatedly urged the Government Accountability Board to add school district designations to the state's voter registration system, so the correct ballots are sent. "We've been asking for about two years," she says. "Other municipalities have been asking as well."

Kyle Richmond, spokesman for the Government Accountability Board, says the system already does print mailing labels with school district designations. "The school district information is supposed to be on there," he says. "As far as we know, it's working well."

But Witzel-Behl says the state's system only works for smaller municipalities, with one school district. In Madison, where wards are often split between districts, the labels "don't say the name of the school district." If it did, "that would allow us to have a double-check that the ballot is correct."

Theron v. Baldwin

If you're running for Congress against a longtime incumbent and have only $1,621 cash on hand - while your opponent has $560,241 - you rely heavily on voter forums. Last week, Peter Theron debated Rep. Tammy Baldwin before the Downtown Rotarians, some of whom didn't even know Baldwin had an opponent this year.

Theron, a Republican from Madison, spouted the usual GOP lines about energy ("Our world economy is run on oil. So I say, drill here, drill now") and the financial crisis ("Government regulation in the Clinton era forced banks to make bad housing loans").

Baldwin promised that Democrats will push reform of the nation's health care system, especially if they gain seats in Congress. "I still have an absolute commitment to health care for all," she said. "While we have not achieved that goal, I do believe it's still within our sights."

Theron and Baldwin will debate again Thursday, Oct. 23, 7 p.m., at the UW-Madison's Brogden Psychology Building.

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