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Ground broken for cleaner, coal-free Charter Street Heating Plant

October 26, 2010 By Chris Barncard

The first shovels full of renewable fuel were symbolically hefted Monday in the transformation of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Charter Street Heating Plant from coal to biomass.

The $251 million project is a step toward energy independence for Wisconsin, according to Gov. Jim Doyle.

“This is a great moment in time when Wisconsin is going to demonstrate to the country and the world our commitment to a new energy future,” Doyle said.

The Charter Street Heating Plant will lose coal-burning boilers purchased used in the 1950s from an American Motors factory in Detroit — initially in favor of a set of natural gas furnaces set to go online by fall of 2011. By 2013 the plant is to be burning about 250,000 tons of biomass from around the state, helping to replace 100,000 tons of coal that arrive annually from West Virginia.

The plant’s need for fuel such as wood chips, corn stalks and switchgrass pellets is expected to jump-start a new energy market in the state. Without any coal, natural gas or petroleum resources, Wisconsin sends about $16 billion per year out of the state to buy energy.

But Wisconsin does have energy resources, according to Doyle.
“They are in our forests, our fields, the wind that blows across the state and the sun that shines on Wisconsin. They are in the ingenuity and research of our great universities,” Doyle said. “Spending just a quarter of that $16 billion on renewable sources, that’s $4 billion that remain to create jobs in Wisconsin.”

Construction process has begun in earnest with a partnership between Appleton-based Boldt Construction and British engineering firm AMEC in the lead.

Bob DeKoch, president of Boldt, expects the project to be a feat of careful collaboration, with more than 250 workers on site at times over the course of two years.

“I would guess there will be hundreds of companies involved and thousands of jobs that are touched, directly or indirectly, by this project,” DeKoch said.

The university will be intimately involved in the plant’s development, even beyond the Facilities, Planning and Management staff’s role.

“We know it will be fueling research into a number of problems for which we need solutions,” said UW–Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin, who was delighted by the message the plant sends to the university’s students and beyond. “It integrates all of what matters to us: basic research, education, outreach and real-world practice.”

Aside from a major component in Doyle’s commitment to end the burning of coal at state-owned power plants on Madison’s isthmus, a biomass-fueled Charter Street is expected to operate as much as 10 percent more efficiently and dramatically reduce pollutants like mercury and heavy metals and greenhouse gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide.

“A more efficient Charter Street plant turns a waste stream into clean energy, keeps energy dollars in our communities, and helps clean our air and water,” Doyle said.