West Riverside Energy Center

The Role of Natural Gas in Reducing Carbon Emissions

Natural gas adds needed reliability and balance to our electric system while we continue to transition away from coal-fired generation and add more renewable energy to our generation mix. The dispatchability and lower emissions associated with natural gas make it a powerful bridge fuel to ensure continued reliability and carbon reductions as technology continues to develop.

The energy industry continues to evolve rapidly. New technologies continue to emerge and to evolve, such as carbon capture, utilization and sequestration, which, if proven cost-effective, hold the potential to make natural gas carbon-neutral in the future.

Batteries are another example of an evolving technology that goes hand-in-hand with natural gas as a bridge fuel. Paired with solar generation, batteries can provide reserve capacity to deliver power on demand for a period of time. Battery technology is still developing, so that amount of time is currently limited. As the technology continues to develop, the reliability and lower emissions of natural gas can help bridge the way to a more sustainable energy supply.

MGE is committed to our carbon reduction and net-zero carbon goals. We would expect to take advantage of new technologies and other options in the future, such as the early retirement or the sale of fossil fuel assets, that allow us to meet our goal of net-zero carbon electricity by 2050.    

The West Riverside Energy Center

Using natural gas as a bridge fuel will allow us to meet our customers' needs reliably as we reduce carbon emissions and transition to a more sustainable energy supply. On Jan. 31, MGE filed an application with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin to purchase 25 megawatts (MW) of the West Riverside Energy Center. This state-of-the-art, 730-MW, highly efficient, combined-cycle natural gas facility is located near Beloit, Wis., and generates enough energy to power more than 550,000 households a year.
 
With the early retirement of the coal-fired Columbia Energy Center and the transition away from coal at the Elm Road Generating Station, the lower carbon intensity of the West Riverside Energy Center will help MGE meet the electricity needs of our customers, lower emissions consistent with global climate science and maintain our top-ranked electric reliability. This proposed investment will play an important role in our path toward reducing carbon emissions at least 80% by 2030 and achieving net-zero carbon electricity by 2050 as it will enable the retirement of Columbia and investment in renewable energy and battery storage.

The West Riverside Energy Center is operated by its majority owner, Alliant Energy. If the purchase is approved, MGE would take ownership of 25 MW in 2023, with an option to purchase another 25 MW. 

Please see the FAQ below to learn more about the role of this facility in providing safe, reliable, affordable and sustainable energy as we work toward our goal of net-zero carbon electricity.

Q. What is the West Riverside Energy Center?

A. The West Riverside Energy Center is Wisconsin's newest and most efficient natural gas generating facility. As the most efficient natural gas plant in Wisconsin, it has the lowest carbon emission rate (or carbon intensity) among natural gas plants statewide. 

West Riverside has a generating capacity of 730 MW, features state-of-the-art technology and came online in May 2020 after three years of construction. The West Riverside Energy Center is adjacent to an existing power plant site near Beloit, Wis. It generates enough electricity to power more than 550,000 households. Alliant Energy is the majority owner and operator of the facility. Co-owners include Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative, Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative and Rock Energy Cooperative.

Q. MGE is working toward net-zero carbon electricity. Why is MGE seeking approval to purchase a share of a natural gas plant?

A. The West Riverside facility offers MGE customers a safe, affordable, reliable and lower emission source that will help enable MGE's path toward net-zero carbon electricity.

MGE has a responsibility to deliver safe and reliable energy every hour of every day. We're working to achieve a more sustainable energy supply mix using the best, most cost-effective technologies as they become available. Natural gas adds needed reliability and balance to our electric system while we continue to add more renewable energy to our energy supply mix and continue our transition away from coal-fired generation with the retirement of the Columbia Energy Center in 2024 and the fuel switch from coal to natural gas at Elm Road Generating Station, which is expected to begin with the next couple of years. MGE is a minority owner of both facilities. 

MGE needs to add generation to make up for the retirement of the Columbia plant, which provides a significant amount (approximately one-third) of the energy used by MGE customers. While the company has filed applications for several renewable generation projects to cover a majority of the lost capacity from Columbia’s retirement, adding highly efficient natural gas is necessary for reliability and dispatchability on the system. 

Natural gas plants are an especially efficient backup to renewable energy because they can be dispatched quickly and at times when it's more challenging for wind or solar generation, making natural gas a reliable and cost-effective option. Natural gas, especially a new facility as highly efficient as the West Riverside Energy Center, also has much lower emissions compared to coal-fired generation. We expect the carbon emissions resulting from a 50-MW share of the West Riverside Energy Center to be less than 10% of the carbon emissions resulting from our share of the output of the Columbia Energy Center.

Q. What role does natural gas play in growing renewable energy?

A. Natural gas is considered a bridge fuel on our way to a net-zero carbon future. As we continue to transition away from coal-fired generation and add more solar and wind energy, natural gas will help provide the balance and reliability we need in our generation mix to continue on our path to net-zero carbon electricity by 2050. 

Solar and wind are intermittent resources, which means the sun doesn't always shine, especially in the winter months, and the wind doesn't always blow, and battery storage technology is still developing. Natural gas is necessary to achieving our sustainability goals while maintaining electric reliability to power our communities cost-effectively. The dispatchability and lower emissions associated with natural gas make it a powerful bridge fuel to ensure continued reliability as technology continues to develop.

The West Riverside Energy Center is a brand new, state-of-the-art facility with lower emission rates than coal-fired generation and older natural gas facilities. As MGE retires generation sources with higher emission rates, for example the coal-fired Columbia Energy Center, adding the West Riverside Energy Center to our generation mix will help MGE reduce carbon emissions at least 80% by 2030. We expect the carbon emissions resulting from a 50-MW share of the West Riverside Energy Center to be less than 10% of the carbon emissions resulting from our share of the output of the Columbia Energy Center.

Q. How does natural gas help MGE achieve net-zero carbon electricity?

A. In May 2019, MGE was one of the first utilities to announce a goal of net-zero carbon electricity by 2050. MGE's net-zero carbon goal is consistent with climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) October 2018 Special Report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To achieve deep decarbonization, MGE is growing its use of renewable energy, engaging customers around energy efficiency and working to electrify transportation, all of which are key strategies identified by the IPCC.

Consistent with global climate science, MGE has committed to carbon reductions of at least 80% by 2030 with West Riverside as part of its generation mix. MGE continues to transition its energy supply to cleaner sources, with the anticipated addition of nearly 400 MW of wind, solar and battery storage between 2015 and 2024.

In 1999, MGE built the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi River. In 2011, we discontinued the use of coal at our Blount Generating Station in downtown Madison. A leader in advancing sustainable energy, MGE is committed to achieving lower carbon emissions and a net-zero carbon future. The West Riverside facility will help enable MGE to meet its sustainability goals and fulfill its obligation to customers to provide safe, reliable, affordable and sustainable energy.

A low carbon-intensive facility, the West Riverside Energy Center compliments intermittent renewable energy with reliable, dispatchable energy to ensure reliability as we continue to decarbonize our energy supply through greater use of renewables. West Riverside will help MGE meet future energy and capacity requirements with cost-effective, cleaner energy as we continue our ongoing transition away from coal-fired electricity with the planned retirement of the Columbia Energy Center in Portage by the end of 2024 and the transition from coal to natural gas at the Elm Road Generating Station in Oak Creek, which is expected to begin within the next couple of years, and the eventual elimination of coal as a fuel source by 2035. Investing in West Riverside allows MGE to divest from coal earlier while investing in more renewable energy, helping to reduce carbon emissions at least 80% by 2030 and achieving net-zero carbon electricity by 2050.

Q. What are the benefits of a modern natural gas plant like the West Riverside Energy Center?

A. The West Riverside Energy Center is a highly efficient existing facility already connected to the power grid. This purchase does not require MGE to build a new facility. West Riverside came online in May 2020, making it the newest natural gas facility in the state. 

The West Riverside Energy Center helps to enable our ongoing transition away from coal-fired generation and the addition of more solar and wind generation and battery storage. With the planned retirement of the coal-fired Columbia Energy Center by the end of 2024, MGE will need replacement energy and capacity to ensure continued reliability. About 25 MW of the West Riverside facility is expected to serve MGE customers if the purchase is approved. MGE also will have an option to purchase another 25 MW. This capacity will help to replace some of the capacity lost with the planned retirement of the Columbia plant. About 200 MW of Columbia's capacity currently serves MGE customers. The West Riverside Energy Center will help MGE meet these future energy and capacity needs as a reliable, cost-effective and lower-emission option.

We expect the carbon emissions from a 50-MW share from the West Riverside Energy Center to be about 10% of the carbon emissions resulting from our share of the output of the Columbia Energy Center, which is planned for retirement by the end of 2024. 

The facility is highly efficient, has state-of-the-art technology, and a lower emission rate than any coal-fired or older natural gas facilities in the region. The West Riverside Energy Center will have the lowest carbon emission rate of all of MGE's non-renewable generation. 

Q. If MGE needs additional energy to serve its customers, why isn't the company buying another wind or solar farm?

A. MGE continues to grow its use of renewable energy with the anticipated addition of nearly 400 MW of wind, solar and battery storage between 2015 and 2024. In addition, MGE also continues to actively evaluate other potential solar and wind generation sites as part of our ongoing clean energy transition.

The West Riverside Energy Center will provide MGE with a highly efficient, reliable, lower emission and cost-effective option to ensure continued reliability and to enable our transition from coal-fired generation as we grow our use of renewables. Solar and wind are intermittent resources, which means the sun doesn't always shine, especially in the winter months, and the wind doesn't always blow, and battery storage technology is still developing. Natural gas is necessary to achieving our sustainability goals while maintaining electric reliability to power our communities cost-effectively. The dispatchability and lower emissions associated with natural gas make it a powerful bridge fuel to ensure continued reliability as we grow our use of renewables and as new technologies continue to develop.

Q. With the emergence of battery storage, why does MGE need natural gas generation? Could MGE add more battery storage systems at its renewable generation facilities?

A. While the combination of solar generation and batteries can provide reserve capacity to deliver power on demand for a limited period of time—particularly in the summer when solar production and electric demand are at their highest—battery technology is still developing and is currently a small part of the system. As battery and other technologies continue to develop, natural gas is able to provide needed reliability to the energy grid, both here in Wisconsin and across the region.

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) is responsible for operating the power grid across 15 states, including Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Manitoba. MISO is changing the way it determines capacity requirements for the utilities in its region. Capacity requirements have historically been determined by the amount of generation available to meet peak demand. Going forward, MISO will be determining capacity requirements on a seasonal basis instead of an annual basis. This means that solar generation, for example, as an intermittent resource, will have a higher capacity during the summer season than during the winter season instead of having the same capacity applied to it for the entire year. The capacity for natural gas, on the other hand, as a firm or dispatchable resource, will remain fairly consistent year-round because of the ability for natural gas plants to generate the same amount of energy at any point during the year. For this reason, using highly efficient natural gas, as we transition away from coal and work toward net-zero carbon electricity, helps to ensure reliability and helps to ensure that MGE has enough capacity to meet our customers' needs and system requirements cost-effectively while we continue to grow our renewable generation.