Wisconsin’s solar industry eclipse

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As we celebrate the return of the sun after an exceptionally cold winter, we mourn the state’s loss of leadership in the rapidly growing solar-energy industry.

In 2010, the Solar Foundation ranked Wisconsin’s solar industry as fifth in the nation in terms of the number of jobs it produced per capita. Last year, the state’s rank in that category was only 24th. And Wisconsin now ranks 50th in terms of solar energy capacity — i.e., the number of kilowatt-hours per square meter per day that can be produced in the state from sunlight.

This downturn in the fortunes of Wisconsin’s solar industry reflects the same fate suffered by the state’s wind-energy industry. In both cases, the shift of trajectory was set into motion when the Koch brothers and other titans of the fossil fuel universe strode into Madison to claim the spoils of their massive electoral investments in the 2010 election.

Tax rebates and other policies that encourage investment in alternative energy projects began to shrivel when Gov. Scott Walker’s first biennial budget kicked in. In 2013, Wisconsin earned “D” grades from the Solar Foundation for the handling of two key policy areas that encourage solar investment. 

At the same time that policies promoting clean, alternative solar energy in Wisconsin have moved backward, the state’s GOP majority has spread out the welcome mat for potentially dangerous, polluting and outmoded energy projects. The controversial open-pit mine that Republicans rammed through the Legislature without proper public input is the highest-profile example.

Five years ago, Wisconsin had a program that allowed early adopters of rooftop solar energy to receive attractive buyback rates from electric providers for the surplus energy they produced. The state also provided grants and incentives to support startup installation contractors. 

But, according to the Solar Foundation, attractive buyback rates in Wisconsin are long gone. Some utilities in the state have restructured their operations to make self-generation much less appealing to customers.

“Given the fact that solar’s return on investment to customers has never been higher, the attitudinal about-face we’re seeing is as inexplicable as it is counterproductive,” wrote Michael Vickerman, the program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin, in a recent email.

Vickerman pointed out that Wisconsin’s failure to promote solar energy comes at a time when national interest has never been higher. In the first quarter of 2013, solar energy accounted for 49 percent of the new power-generating capacity built in the nation — “elbowing out wind and natural gas as the fastest growing energy source in the United States,” Vickerman said.

But not in Wisconsin.

The state’s reversal in alternative energy policy has cost Wisconsin jobs, out-of-state investment and increased access to clean, renewable energy. We do not believe this shift in attitude is “inexplicable,” as Vickerman put it. We believe it is the direct result of political payback to major players in the fossil fuel industry who gave massive donations to the party now in charge of the state. 

Once again, the state’s leadership has betrayed the interests of the people to serve big-money backers. That’s not what democracy looks like.