As Wisconsin tries to kill clean energy, Indiana announces development of two massive solar farms

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

While WE Energies and Madison Gas and Electric are trying to discourage the use of solar and wind energy in Wisconsin through high fees, Indiana is planning to build two new solar farms, including a very large one on the grounds of Indianapolis International Airport.

A developer will lease about 76 acres along the airport’s main entrance road off Interstate 70 to erect about 37,500 panels. An electric utility is planning a smaller solar farm near the northern Indiana city of Peru.

The airport project is estimated to cost between $20 million and $25 million, Indy Airport Solar Partners president Kurt Schneider told The Indianapolis Business Journal. The company runs the 44,000-panel solar farm that was completed at the airport last year.

Work already is underway to prepare the site, and it could be completed by the end of this year, Schneider said. The developer has an agreement to sell the electricity to Indianapolis Power & Light Co.

“What makes this one unique is that the panels will be able to track the sun,” Schneider said. “It will increase production by 15 percent.”

The combined farms there likely will make up the largest airport-based solar field in the country, and will generate enough energy to power about 3,150 homes a year, Schneider said.

The Indiana Municipal Power Association, meanwhile, is planning its fourth solar farm in the state, with the new one set for near the Miami County city of Peru with almost 3,900 panels. This week, the Miami County Council approved a 10-year property tax abatement on the project, which is expected to start producing electricity by next summer, the Kokomo Tribune reported.

Indiana Municipal is the wholesale power provider for 59 Indiana communities and also operates solar farms in Richmond, Rensselaer and Frankton.

Wisconsin lags

Like Indiana, Iowa and Illinois are also far more advanced in clean energy development than Wisconsin is.

An Iowa Supreme Court ruling in July permits solar energy companies to sell power directly to customers. The decision was hailed as a big boost to renewable energy in the state.

Iowa is already one of the leaders among U.S. states in wind-power generation. In 2013, 27.4 percent of the state’s electricity generation came from the wind.

The ruling on solar energy will expedite the adoption of rooftop solar power generating systems in Iowa, particularly by cities, schools and nonprofit groups, according to The Associated Press. The result will be to lower users’ energy costs and damage to the environment.

The ruling put Iowa in line with about two dozen other states that allow so-called power purchase agreements.

Illinois is also a leader in wind energy production and equipment manufacturing. The state ranks fourth for the number of utility-scale wind turbines, although less than 5 percent of the state’s electricity was produced by wind in 2013.

A recently passed law in Illinois requires the Illinois Power Agency, which procures electricity for utility customers, to buy up to $30 million in electricity from clean sources. The law passed with broad bipartisan support.

In Wisconsin, however, an effort is currently underway by WE Energies and Madison Gas & Electric to impose prohibitive fees on solar panel users in order to discourage the growth of clean energy. The utilities have threatened they will have to increase rates for all users if they lose income due to competition from clean energy.

Wisconsin Energy Corporation earned $546 million in profit during 2012 and the company’s chairman and CEO Gale Klappa earned $13.1 million in personal compensation that year.

But in September 2013, Klapp told the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that consumers are getting him and other WE Energies’ employees at a bargain-basement rate. The top seven executives at the regional monopoly earned a combined $22.5 million in direct compensation during 2012. Overall compensation, including option awards, totaled $33.75 million for the group, according to the Milwaukee Business Journal.

WE Energies hasn’t explained why permitting an expansion of clean energy in the state would destroy the finances of one of the nation’s most profitable utility company’s. Officials will have the chance to explain their reasoning at Public Service Commission meetings in early October.

Gov. Scott Walker, a staunch opponent of clean energy who is heavily financed by the fossil fuel industry, appointed two of the commission’s three members. Ties between the commission and the Walker administration are quite direct. The commission’s communication chair, for example, formerly served as deputy communications director of Friends of Scott Walker.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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