Solar energy field remains strong in Wisconsin

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Given our climate, Wisconsin would never be mistaken for the best solar state in the country

But among non-Sun Belt states, the state is staking a claim in providing power from the sun.

Except for California and Texas, Wisconsin is the only state with two cities – Milwaukee and Madison – in the national Solar America Cities program.

A $19.6 million project for Roundy’s Corp. in Oconomowoc would become the largest solar power project in the Midwest, if it gets $8.8 million in federal stimulus funding.

And the state has more certified solar installers per capita than nearly every state in the country, according to Tehri Parker, executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. Even with the recession, the number of solar installations is expanding – and so is training for solar-contracting jobs, Parker said.

On a recent weekend in Milwaukee, trainees from Wyoming, Virginia and Missouri were on a rooftop in Milwaukee’s central city installing solar panels on a Habitat for Humanity home.

Habitat is partnering with We Energies and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association to provide much-needed training for solar technicians – a job that’s expected to be in high demand given the growth trajectory that solar enjoys.

John Price, a firefighter with the Brookfield Fire Department, is looking to switch careers into a greener line of work.

He’s getting trained in solar installation, working on installing solar panels at Habitat for Humanity homes in Milwaukee, and forming a Waukesha business, Access Solar, with his sons.

He was leading an installation at a Habitat house a few weeks back and learned his students hailed from across the country.

“It’s people who’ve been laid off, or are people who are in their 40s who are changing careers or laid off and looking for something else,” said Price, 50.

Small fraction

Solar represents a fraction of the energy supply puzzle. If the state’s energy supply in 2007 were a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, coal would account for more than 300 pieces, and renewable energy would account for about 20 pieces. All the solar power in the state wouldn’t add up to a piece.

But the growth rate for solar has been something to behold, even as advocates concede the numbers are small in total.

“It’s been a remarkable year,” said Niels Wolter, who heads solar programs at the state Focus on Energy program. “We’re projecting out 73% growth over last year. Before that it was growing at about 80% per year since 2002. So it’s slowed down a little bit in the growth rate, but it’s still a booming market.”

In recent years, different projects have staked a claim to be the largest solar project in the state. For a time, it was Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center, and later GE Healthcare in Waukesha. The current leader is the headquarters campus of Johnson Controls Inc. with more than 2,000 solar panels.

But new and bigger projects are in the planning stages:

• Milwaukee Area Technical College and Johnson Controls are planning to build a solar education farm on property along the Milwaukee River where the Milwaukee Public Television transmitter tower is located. That project would consist of nearly 2,500 panels.

• The state Office of Energy Independence has applied for nearly $9 million in federal funding to help Roundy’s Inc. build the largest solar project in the Midwest in Oconomowoc. More than 12,000 panels would be installed.

• Cardinal Glass recently opened a new factory in Mazomanie to make glass for solar panels, in a project that could add at least 60 jobs, and demand is expected to grow for the glass used in panels to the point that Cardinal has received a state loan for another project, to upgrade photovoltaic glass production capacity.

• Wisconsin utilities have committed to expanding their solar output, in part through settlements of lawsuits with environmental groups. We Energies said last week that it plans to invest $70 million to $90 million over the next four years in large solar projects, for a total of more than 12 megawatts of power.

• To help ensure a strong supply of solar installers across the Midwest, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association will train 200 instructors over the next five years in six states. The $3.3 million program expands the rapidlygrowing Custer-based organization’s teaching role that has already attracted students from across the country.

The victorious training grant won by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association came at the expense of Milwaukee Area Technical College, which had proposed in a grant application to the federal government that its “solar education farm” on Capitol Drive be a “train the trainers” site to train renewable energy technicians.

Slower growth

The solar education farm project will still move forward despite not winning the training funding, said Mike Sargent of MATC and Don Albinger of Johnson Controls.

Even with all these projects and announcements, some renewable energy advocates say the growth rate will slow considerably in 2010 because electric utilities no longer are offering extra incentives to give the solar market a boost.

We Energies had a generous solar buyback rate in place two years ago, and replaced it with a different program this year. That program is fully subscribed, and no more applications are being accepted.

Michael Vickerman, executive director of the advocacy group Renew Wisconsin, said the expiration of those incentives is unfortunate. He’s urging the state to move aggressively to require utilities to offer generous buyback rates.

“We are clearly the leading state in the Midwest, but that momentum is in danger of dissipating,” said Vickerman. “Because what really attracts customers and would-be system owners is the buyback rate.”

And developers of large solar projects aren’t coming to Wisconsin, said green-energy consultant Brett Hulsey, because Wisconsin hasn’t followed states such as California and New Jersey in adopting tax credits to bring down the price of solar projects.

Utilities say that the incentives are being subsidized by other utility customers. Other incentives are still available, including a 30% federal tax credit and rebates from Focus on Energy, said We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey.

In addition, the prices for solar panels themselves have dropped by 15% in recent months, shortening the number of years it would take to pay back the investment in solar from about 23 years to about 20 years, depending on the project.

Vickerman says the utility incentives offered in recent years can cut the payback time by nearly half. We Energies may resume solar incentives for residential customers at some point but is focusing now on solar projects for schools and nonprofit groups, he said.

But utilities and business groups alike have raised questions about whether more utility customer dollars should be spent on renewable energy, which isn’t as cost-effective as other power generation.

“Whenever you’re paying an above-market rate, you’re driving up costs,” said Todd Stuart, executive director of the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, which represents factories and other big energy users on energy issues. When utilities provide incentives for solar, it’s raising the price for homeowners who aren’t adding solar to help those who are.

Solar advocates defend the subsidies – and say more action is needed as the state considers legislation designed to help Wisconsin reduce its carbon footprint.

“Why is it worth subsidizing? Wisconsin is the coal capital of the Midwest, and if you want to move to greener fuels you’ve got to be willing to invest in them,” Hulsey said. “We’ve got to put our money where our mouth is on renewable energy, or it won’t happen.”

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