Energy in Communities: Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Energy Revolution Helps Set Up Eau Claire For Bright Future
When James Hanke completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire in 2001, staying around after graduation wasn’t the plan. A native of Chippewa Falls, about 20 miles to the northeast, Hanke expected his future would unfold elsewhere.
Today, Hanke’s glad he stayed – a member of Wisconsin’s “sticky population,” natives who stay put instead of migrating elsewhere – and to be part of an economic comeback in the northwestern part of the state, closely tied to another comeback: U.S. natural gas and oil.
“We weathered the recession thanks to the energy projects that created jobs and opportunities.”
– Terry Hayden, President, Wisconsin Pipe Trades Association
“America’s natural gas and oil renaissance catapulted the region’s industrial sand mine industry, and in turn, created a path for economic stability and ultimately, growth for Market & Johnson, our employees and workers across a number of sectors,” Hanke says.
Abundant domestic natural gas and oil are economically empowering well beyond the industry itself – as fuel for transportation or power generation, as a component in materials that make Americans’ lives more comfortable, as building blocks for manufacturing processes and more. Natural gas and oil are the leading energy sources that drive the United States’ 21st-century economy.
Western Wisconsin is home to some of the best industrial sand quarries in the country. Market & Johnson helped build processing facilities in states across the U.S. where hydraulic fracturing has been used to develop natural gas and oil. Eau Claire sand is used in the majority of the shale plays in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas.
Frac sand mining and other industries associated with natural gas and oil have helped transform Eau Claire, a relatively quiet, small Wisconsin town of just under 68,000. Today, the “Indie Capital of the Midwest” is varied and vibrant, attracting indie music lovers, foodies and fans of locally brewed beers.
Eau Claire’s unemployment rate is under 3%, and the median family income tops $76,500 (compared to about $76,400 nationally). The cost of living index is 93.9 – compared to the national average and the Twin Cities’ index of 105 in 2018.
Benn Haas, owner of The Plus, a popular bar downtown, has seen Eau Claire’s thriving economy benefit small business owners like himself. During the 1980s, large shopping malls drew people out of the city center, putting a damper on small businesses. But the city, reinvigorated as it helped support production of U.S. energy, worked to bring people back downtown.
In Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, home to Eau Claire, the natural gas, oil and petrochemicals industry:
Haas was part of the area’s revitalization. In addition to The Plus, he also owns an arts supply store, a framing store, a tea shop and a cupcake shop, and he lives in and leases the apartments above The Plus. His next venture? “A restaurant,” he says, “but only if it comes with a parking lot.”
Terry Hayden, president of the Wisconsin Pipe Trades Association, credits Eau Claire’s transformation to a mix of private and public investments, including natural gas and oil.
Clean, Affordable Energy for Northwestern Wisconsin
The Chippewa Valley Energy co-op provides propane fuel, heating oil and lubricants to the Eau Claire area – places including Black River Falls, Menomonie, Hudson and Barron. The co-op’s Barry Hines says its “follow the farmer” program supplies propane and diesel directly to farmers, which has helped expand the customer base.
In turn, the co-op is part of a supply chain for companies including Market & Johnson, the regional construction and contracting company. Chippewa Valley Energy owns two oil refineries and provides fuel to power heavy machinery and other equipment at construction sites.
Meanwhile, Eau Claire is home to the Wheaton Generating Station, a natural gas-fueled power station that produces 330 to 430 megawatts of electricity. The station is part of an energy system that has provides affordable energy to Eau Claire and the surrounding area – commercial rates more than 10% lower than the national average and residential rates 2% below the national average.
At the same time, Eau Claire’s electricity emissions were just 0.37 metric tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour in 2017, or a little more than half the statewide average of 0.66 metric tons per megawatt-hour.
“It’s heartwarming to see that Eau Claire has gone from being simply a good place to live to a city people are drawn to with so much to do,” says Hayden.
Nearby Chippewa Valley Technical College has 18,000 students enrolled in associate degree, technical diploma or vocational continuing education programs to support the area’s demand for manufacturing, distribution and other skilled laborers.
“We weathered the recession thanks to the energy projects that created jobs and the opportunity for young people to come into our industry,” says Hayden. “These are lifelong careers that provide a good life in Wisconsin, and it’s important to us to provide training resources to prepare them for a bright future.”
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