Study: Wisconsin is home to two of nation’s 100 worst polluting power plants

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin is home to two of the worst-polluting power plants in the nation, according to data recently compiled by a Milwaukee-based environmental research and policy organization.

The study, published by Wisconsin Environment Research & Policy Center, used data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s eGRID to rank the nation’s 100 worst-polluting plants based on the amount of carbon dioxide each plant spewed into the atmosphere in 2020.

Of the 100 plants on the list, two are located in Wisconsin: the Elm Road Generating Station in Oak Creek (ranked 32) and the Columbia Energy Center in Columbia (ranked 56). Both plants are coal-burning facilities.

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Per Wisconsin Environment’s analysis, the Elm Road plant in Milwaukee released 7.07 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2020, which is equal to the emissions of 1,524,354 passenger vehicles. That same year, the Columbia plant released 5.68 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas, which is equivalent to the emissions of 1,223,378 passenger vehicles.

On a statewide level, two of the 10 highest polluting plants are in southern Wisconsin: the Columbia plant (ranked 2) and the Riverside Energy Center north of Beloit (ranked 7). The Riverside Energy Center facility is a gas-burning facility.

Other high-polluting plants around Wisconsin can be found in Marathon, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Buffalo, Outagamie, Sheboygan and Vernon counties.

Combined, those 10 power plants made up nearly 90% of all emissions tied to electricity generation in Wisconsin in 2020. Of those 10 plants, one has since closed, and four others — including the Columbia power plant — are scheduled to partially or fully shutter their operations by 2025.

Included in the group’s study was a recommendation that the EPA enact “the strongest possible limits on carbon dioxide pollution from new and existing power plants,” a suggestion that became significantly more difficult following the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest decision on environmental regulations.

The conservative majority court in a 6-3 ruling said that the Clean Air Act — which was initially signed into law in 1963 and further expanded in 1970 — does not give the EPA the authority to broadly regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Locally, the decision drew criticism from Dane County Executive Joe Parisi who said the court’s ruling would “drag our country’s environmental policy back to the 1950s.”

Parisi and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway have worked in recent years to transition the city’s and county’s facilities to renewable power. Earlier this month, county leaders broke ground on a 90-acre solar project that, upon completion, will fulfill the county’s goal of powering all county facilities with 100% renewable electricity.

Wisconsin Environment Research & Policy Center’s full study on the state’s dirtiest power plants is available in full online.