BAYFIELD – Along with the arrival of spring has also come the possibility of solar community farms taking root in Northern Wisconsin.
Since March 10, Northland College Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute (SOEI) has been hosting a climate change lecture series called, “Global Problem, Local Solutions” at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center (NGLVC). On April 28, a beam of light shone down on “Solar Power for Northern Wisconsin” with guest speaker Tyler Huebner, executive director at RENEW Wisconsin. Filled to capacity, this enthusiasm also spilled over into the following day at Big Water Coffee Roasters in Bayfield where 40 people gathered to hear Huebner speak once again and discuss the possibility of solar farms in the region.
Gayle Chatfield, co-owner of Bailey’s Greenhouse, which runs almost exclusively on renewable energy, introduced Huebner. “Tyler is passionate about the transformation of our country’s energy systems to renewable sources.”
Well qualified to expound on this topic, Huebner earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University where he cofounded a group called “Energy Crossroads,” focused on the intersection between businesses, national security and environmental interests in clean energy. He’s also been a consultant on energy efficiency projects with utility companies and the United States EPA; run grant programs in the U.S. Department of Energy; and has worked for the State of Wisconsin Division of Energy Services.
First off, Huebner explained a little bit about RENEW Wisconsin, a non-profit formed in 1991 to basically do the dirty work of interfacing with state legislative and regulatory issues around clean energy.
“A lot of these decisions get made in Madison by your representatives and by the governor’s office, and people appointed by the governor in processes that are almost impossible to understand without groups like RENEW Wisconsin getting involved, making sure that the best outcome possible happens for renewable energy,” he said.
A few of these accomplishments include helping Xcel Energy develop the “Focus on Energy Program” which provides customers with rebates for efficient lighting, refrigerators, air conditioners, insulation, and renewable installations such as solar and small wind systems.
“Our organization worked in the ‘90s and ‘00s to get that program established and has worked the last four or five years defending it to make sure money is available for customers to receive those grants,” he said.
They also helped the State of Wisconsin establish a renewable energy standard in the early 2000s: 10 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy by the year 2015.
“We actually met it by the end of 2013 and now we are in 2015,” said Huebner who noted Wisconsin was the first state in the U.S. to set a standard. “However, politically there’s not a lot of will right now in Madison to say we are going to set higher standards.”
Nonetheless, this slender electrical engineer sparking with optimism said he’s fully engaged in helping usher in other renewable energy programs, like solar gardens or solar farms.
“Anyone know what a solar farm is?” Huebner asked. Half of the audience raised their hands. “Basically about three out of every four utility customers are not well suited to put solar on their houses. In some cases this is because their home is shaded, or because their roofline faces east and west, not south.”
The way it works, he said, is the utility company would offer a program that might include 100 or more solar panels in what’s called a solar array. He mentioned that there’s one in Westby with 1000 panels. Customers purchase as many panels as they like from the utility, and the utility in turn houses and maintains them. The panels are guaranteed to last at last 25 years and would take roughly 12 years to pay off, less if electric rates increase. The rate of investment (ROI) could be as much as 5-6 percent.
“Businesses can subscribe, also non-profits and churches. It really opens the door to a lot more participation, and it also brings down the cost,” Huebner said.
For one thing, utilities buy panels wholesale whereas a homeowner pays retail for their personal rooftop systems. A solar farm panel would cost around $600 per panel. A homeowner can purchase as many panels as they wish up to the amount of their average usage.
Of course, Huebner said they wouldn’t supply as much electricity, but it would lower the price point and enable more participants in the program.
As far as customer repayment rates go for energy generated from the community farm panels, Huebner said it all depends on the state as well as the energy company. For instance, Minnesota participants in a similar program receive 12-15 cents per kilowatt-hour. In comparison, Xcel Energy, who announced last week they’re interested in establishing several solar arrays in the state, proposed a repayment rate of 6.9 or 7.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, depending on the size of the farm.
When Bailey heard this news he said, “We are pleased that Xcel is offering community solar. Their price, however, could be higher. ”
Bailey and Chatfield belong to Bayfield Electric Cooperative (BEC), also looking at starting a solar farm in Bayfield County. In February they sent out a customer survey and received a tremendous response. At this point they haven’t established a repayment rate yet, but Bailey’s rooting for 10 percent.
Besides encouraging people to write Xcel asking them to raise the repayment rate, Bailey suggested homeowners could also purchase their own rooftop systems. Costly at first, the benefits are multi-faceted. For one thing, energy is produced onsite. Also, any surplus energy would flow back into the grid and the utility who would reimburse customers with what’s called net metering. BEC’s current net-metering rate is 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.
When Huebner heard about Xcel’s repayment rate he said, “It can still lead to a positive opportunity for customers to be part of local solar development. They should still earn a much better financial return than having their money in a bank account, and the initial repayment rate could rise over time, according to Xcel.”
The next few months will prove to be interesting. The cost of solar panels has gone down by 50 percent in the last five years and arrays are proliferating worldwide. Last month two U.S. companies, First Solar Inc. and Powerhive Inc., said they will be offering electricity to more than 200,000 homes in Kenya from off-grid solar systems. Both BEC and Excel Energy are circling around this campfire too, trying to figure out not only how to afford it but also how to deliver consistent and reliable service to their customers.
“To give them some credit, the one thing we all want without question is that when we need that electricity, when we want to turn on the light, we want our air conditioner to work, we want it to be available and reliable, basically all of the time,” Huebner said.
Solar still has its limitations, like when the sun goes behind the clouds. But the pluses far outweigh the minuses, according to Huebner. Judging from the positive attendance at both events last week, it appears that many citizens in the northland are ready to hoe a row in what would be the first northern Wisconsin community solar garden.
By the way, there are two more climate change lectures to go. The next one is “Greenhouse & Business Field Tour: Local Residents Embrace Alternative Energies,” 3 p.m., May 9 at none other than Bailey’s Greenhouse. Besides Chatfield and Bailey, other renewable energy business owners will give presentations, including Steve Sandstrom from Pinehurst Inn. Also, special guests include Larry Roecker, BEC Energy Manager Advisor, and Mike BeBeau, Community Service Manager for Xcel.
Hope McLeod can be reached at email@example.com.