Deep in the cave of a well-used wall tent, a man assured the 16 audience members that windmills do not propel enormous ice chunks into the sky that shimmer at their apex before arcing down into a fully loaded school bus.
Getting people to be okay with wind energy, he said, was all about education.
Wind just isn’t en vogue even though it counted for 33% of Wisconsin’s renewable electricity generation in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, while solar energy accounted for just 0.2%.
Which, on June 26 was ironic, as the wind’s power was on exhibit as it ripped through the 20 or so heavy tarp tents erected for the 3-day Wisconsin Energy Fair in Custer. The event takes place at a Midwest Renewable Energy Association site and is an opportunity for the energy minded to see the latest in Wisconsin renewables.
Wisconsinites appetite for energy just exceeds the national average at 1.8 quadrillion Btu in 2017, roughly the calorie equivalent of eating 999.9 billion cows.
The majority of that energy is imported, although Wisconsin’s two nuclear power plants generate about 15% of the electricity it produces. Coal makes up half of the state-generated power, and natural gas fired power plants make up another 25%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Renewables make up about 10% annually, which was a goal set by the State Legislature first hit in 2013.
The 30th annual Wisconsin Energy Fair attracted more than 10,000 energy ravenous people over the weekend and had more than 200 exhibits set up by businesses and 200 instructional workshops, a Fair representative said.
Above the parking lot, the white petals of the windmill never stopped whisking.
License plates from Maine, New York and New Mexico joined the more regional Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio out on the rolling hills of sun blanched, teeth-pickin’ grass.
Some license plates celebrated the vehicle’s lack of combustion and declared: “clean,” “elect” or “plggd n.”
Of all the corporate presence, Tesla probably had the most success and didn’t pay a dime, thanks to the company’s drivable billboards. Owners plugged in at charging stations positioned in the middle of the grounds and spoke the languages of their people: mpg equivalency and maximum range.
In the future, expect more Teslas on Wisconsin highways. Senator Chris Kapenga was persuaded to vote on June 26 in favor of the state budget with the addition of a provision that would allow Tesla to open dealerships in Wisconsin.
Kapenga sells rebuilt Teslas and parts, according to an Associated Press story, as a no-profit hobby. “I purchased a handful of Teslas to get parts I need and I’m selling parts I don’t need,” he told reporters. “It is just what I love to do in my spare time.”
Electric vehicles can be costly, but at the Fair, dealership-sold electric vehicles drove on the middle of the road on price.
In one lane of the spectrum was a 1983 Volkswagen van fueled by a local tavern’s soy bean oil. The engine starts on diesel to heat the grease for 2-3 minutes before being switched to fish fry Friday power.
Converter kits sell online for about $2,000 depending on the vehicle and an instructional video is available.
Or, in the other lane, you can spend $200,000 and create something sleek, sexy and solar by smashing the steering of a 1989 Honda Prelude with two Dodge Neon front ends, construct a steel chassis and an outside smoothed with fiberglass and DeLorean style doors and compete for the 2010 X Prize.
Illuminati Motor Works of Illinois built the Seven to compete for the $5 million winner-takes-all prize, but clutch problems prevented it from driving beyond the knockout stage.
Electric cars are sparking interest in Barron County. Barron Electric Cooperative leased a test-drivable Chevrolet Bolt last year. The auto starts and drives like a ninja, and its dashboard is streaked with a colorful heads up display that reenforces energy efficient driving with real-time data on efficiency and kilowatt-hour output, and includes a mileage estimator that instantly adjusts when the A/C is switched on.
The co-op gives members a Level 2 charger when they purchase an electric vehicle. Free Level 2 charging stations are outside its Barron and Spooner offices and there are plans to install two more in its service area.
The Barron location is noticeable for its array of 360 solar panels. The co-op maintains ownership of the panels, but rents 340 out to members who are credited for the energy the 3.6 watt panels generate. The remaining 20 solar panels fund maintenance for the whole lot.
The co-op’s 2018 Yearly Report stated total kWh use increased by 5.5% compared to the previous year. With nearly 19,000 members served by 3,159 miles of lines using an average of 1,669 kWhs per month, a rough estimate comes in at over 380 million kWh used in 2018.
More power going out means more money coming in to invest in technology and employees and reward members. Barron Electric reported total revenue of $39.8 million in 2017, $2.8 million more than the previous year, according to its tax filings, and gave its general manager a $75,000 increase in total compensation while dispensing more than $600,000 in capital credits to nearly 11,600 members, netting each member about $50.
Let the sun pick up the check
Foley Quinn’s Shell Lake solar company had prime real estate near the entrance of the Energy Fair. His folding chair was set up under the Next Energy Solutions’ canopy.
The sun beat down while people collected brochures and business cards like baseball cards along the main strip. People cooled off under the massive exhibit tents, before being lured out by happy hour beer truck.
Three things influence a solar customer, Quinn said. The first is the money to be saved or made. The second is the independence that comes with not having to rely on the grid. The third is concern for the environment.
Scott Tice’s son installed panels on the roof of Tice Technologies in Rice Lake over 5 years ago. In 2009, Tice installed panels on his Cumberland home.
He said he was Rice Lake Utilities first solar customer and has net metering, which allows him to sell surplus power back to the utility company at retail price. Barron Electric offers the same for its members. Tice said the building isn’t an optimum solar situation, so he gets about 1/3 of his electric needs from the sun. His Cumberland solar panels paid the whole electric bill.
It really can be all about location. And the mounting system, expected energy output and system cost, and financial incentives.
Tice isn’t put out by the lesser output. “I feel like it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
The idea that an individual can make a difference is championed by Elite Miss Minnesota Daneka Hill. The sash wearing 2019 Elite Miss Earth beauty pageant contestant said she’s all for savvy, personal level sustainability efforts. Hill presented at the Fair, greeted people at the gate and lent her support for water conservation, recycling and reusable shopping bags.
Making the switch to eco-friendly behaviors, she said, even one person at a time, can add up to a difference.
Plastics concern Hill. The authors of the 2017 study “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made” estimated that 30% of the plastics ever produced are currently in use. Sixty percent of tall plastics are currently in landfills or scattered around earth, it stated, and 10% have been recycled.
The use of disposable plastics such as grocery bags, cutlery and straws has been criticized as contributors to the swirl of tiny particles that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other oceanic gyres of waste.
Presenters of one Energy Fair workshop made the argument that individual efforts fall short of benefiting the environment and only serve to make the individual feel good about themselves.
The presenters warned that all straws—paper, wood, metal—have drawbacks and urged a patient, measured approach to the choosing a solution to plastic pollution. Audience members were encouraged to vote, run for office and aim for global change.
But sometimes the government makes the choice before you get there. Hawaii, New York, California, Maine and Vermont have already banned plastic bags and the entire nation of Canada has gone beyond the bags, banning plastic straws as well.
There have been unexpected outcomes of the bans. After corporations such as Starbucks, Disney and American Airlines ditched plastic straws, one paper straw company had sales rise by 5,000%, according to a June 13 Fortune article.
Eclipsing the price tag
NES owner Quinn estimated a solar system group-buy would cost $9,200. That type of money is a serious decision, and the price can get customers off solar.
It isn’t until after that initial payment that the rebates kick in.
Wisconsin’s Focus On Energy program has a $4,000 incentive for Rural Residential Solar installers, including Rice Lake customers. As of June 10, the 2018 fund had $107,000 left to reimburse rural installers.
Focus on Energy was determined to be the most cost effective program in the country in a study conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and supported by the U.S. Department of Energy that came out in June.
The federal government supplies a benefit to residential and business installers with a tax credit that’s available until Dec. 31, 2023. It allows a 30% deduction of the cost of installing a solar energy system from federal taxes.
So, that $9,200 up front becomes $3,640. Quinn estimated a 20 panel system would produce about $90 worth of electricity a month— less in the winter, more in the summer. The system would be paid off in about 3 1/4 years.
Left, Right, Libertarians
Solar, Quinn said, is right down the middle of the legislative aisle. The Democratic and Libertarian parties had booths at the Fair, and Republican Representative Romaine Quinn told the Chronotype he believes renewables should and will play a bigger role in the future.
Renewables aren’t just an environmental thing, Rep. Quinn said, but the lowering of prices makes renewables a plus from a market share standpoint.
The Governor’s 2019-21 budget was ambitious in renewable energy. It proposed creating an Office of Clean Energy and Sustainability, as well as declaring a state goal of 100% carbon-free by 2050.
Neither of those made the final cut, but Rep. Quinn told the Chronotype the plan to use Wisconsin’s take from the federal settlement with Volkswagen over violating the Clean Air Act to fund business grants is still on. The grants would be aimed at constructing a clean energy corridor that would link states and provide incentive for green-minded tourists to come to Wisconsin.
The budget also includes a provision allowing $245 million in public debt to be contracted in order to fund energy conservation projects at state facilities.
Solar’s future will only get brighter. Installation cost has gone from $8.50 per watt in 2009 to $3.50 10 years later, according to EnergySage, a site that compares solar providers.
As cost goes down, efficiency improves. NES owner Quinn estimated that a panel that produced 230 watts 5 years ago could now hit 310 watts.
Renewable solutions, along with other environmental stances, have proved to be solid public relations moves that can also benefit the planet and its people.
Including the shirtless man laying in the grass at the Fair while listening to music 10-yards from a solar panel. Both man and post were saving energy: one for happy hour, the other to keep the keg cold.