Solar power’s big year in Wisconsin

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

Solar energy in the Badger State saw its best year ever in 2016, according to RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison-based nonprofit.

Counting projects under construction, the state will soon double its production of sunshine energy — on the way to at least tripling it by 2021.

The state’s impressive strides include increased infrastructure and energy generation, as well as new businesses.

In 2016, businesses and homeowners invested $12.38 million in solar in Wisconsin. Even more investment is expected this year.

“The last two years we’ve seen a real marked increase in the number of businesses using solar,” Tyler Huebner, RENEW Wisconsin executive director, says. “Last year for example, Target did 18 stores across Wisconsin.”

One of the leaders, here and nationally, is Kohl’s, based in Menomonee Falls. The department store chain’s largest solar system is in Edgewood, Maryland, which has 8,360 solar panels. The amount of solar energy Kohl’s locations generate could power more than 4,100 homes annually. The amount of carbon dioxide it prevents from going into the air would equal a years’ worth of driving more than 9,500 cars.

Dairyland Power Cooperative, based in La Crosse, is another leader in solar and is building facilities that will generate 20 megawatts — enough energy annually for 2,500 Wisconsin homes.

Last year, two investor-owned utilities — Alliant Energy and Madison Gas & Electric — brought three arrays online. Alliant’s facility in Beloit is currently the largest solar-powered generator in the state.

But the state’s largest solar energy project by far is yet to come.

NextEra Energy Resources and WPPI Energy announced in January that they will build and operate a 100-megawatt solar energy plant in northeast Wisconsin, serving 23,000 people near Two Rivers. This operation will triple the amount of solar energy in Wisconsin.

Solar employment soaring

Perhaps most impressive are the numbers associated with the growth of solar business in Wisconsin.

“Solar jobs are right here in Dane County and are good-paying, high-wage jobs,” notes Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

The Solar Energy Industries Association reports Wisconsin is home to 195 solar-related companies, 42 of them manufacturers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, state solar industries employed 2,800 people in 2016, an increase of 45 percent over 2015. Their customers aren’t confined to the state.

“We’ve got a strong manufacturing base that’s exporting our goods, services and expertise across the country” says Huebner.

“It all starts with individuals taking that first step. Whether for your home, business, local government or perhaps your community of faith, now is a great time to investigate solar power.”

Dane County commitment to solar

Last month, the city of Madison joined the ranks of 25 other U.S. cities in setting a goal to reach 100 percent renewable energy, adding $250,000 to the $750,000 already budgeted for 2017 sustainability improvements, including efficiency upgrades.

Cities with similar commitments include Grand Rapids, Michigan; Rochester, Minnesota; Salt Lake City; and San Francisco.

“It is critical, particularly in these times, that we lead locally on climate change,” says Madison Common Council member Ledell Zellers. “For future generations and for the health of our planet, we have a responsibility to act.”

Already heavily invested in solar, Dane County will spend $2 million on new arrays this year.

The Dane County Regional Airport had the largest publicly owned solar facility in Wisconsin until recently, when the county’s East District Campus facility opened.

“Dane County is leading the way on solar investments in Wisconsin,” says Parisi.

“Over the last few years, we have invested millions into solar and tripled the county’s solar arrays,” he says. “Investing in solar isn’t just the right thing to do for our environment, it is the prudent thing to do for taxpayers and our economy.”

Even the Capitol building in Madison is fitted with solar panels, producing 11,776 kilowatt-hours per year.

Solar advantages

Why is Wisconsin so sunny about solar?

President Donald Trump has energy goals, but Wisconsin isn’t likely to develop coal deposits anytime soon. Meanwhile, “We don’t have to import the sunlight,” observes Mitchell Brey, campaign director at RePower Madison, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It just shows up.”

“A second reason: It’s growing is really a national and a global trend, which is the cost of building solar energy projects has fallen dramatically,” says Huebner. “It’s actually down about 80 percent over the past decade. The equipment has gotten a lot more effective and efficient.”

In addition, “one of the unique things about solar energy technology is that it’s very scalable,” Huebner says. While the humblest home can generate energy, “you can also create energy on a large scale. And we’ve got a lot of utilities and power providers getting into solar.”

State government has spurred growth, too, with its Focus on Energy program.

“It’s been around for 15 years, and it promotes energy-saving upgrades like better light bulbs, insulation, more efficient furnaces and so on,” says Huebner. “Renewable energy is one of the areas for which it offers rebates, for people that are investing in these technologies”

“One sour note,” adds Brey, “is that the rebate comes from a fixed pool of cash, which is reset each year. In 2015, it was set to $1 million for residential customers. It’s first-come first-served, too, which means getting your claim in early is important.”