By Tom Still
MADISON – Here’s a fact that will likely surprise anyone who likes to joke, whine or fume about the weather in Wisconsin, which includes most of us: The sun shines over the Badger state more than half the time.
Depending a bit on where you live in Wisconsin, you can expect to see the sun shining 190 out of 365 days a year, counting days that are partly sunny. That’s not Arizona-like sunshine, but it’s not Seattle, either.
Tapping into the sun to produce energy is still a small part of Wisconsin’s overall energy mix, but it’s the fastest-growing component. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports Wisconsin ranks 30th overall among the 50 states in installed solar capacity and that $12 million was spent on solar installations in 2015, up about 70 percent from 2014.
“It was a breakout year for solar energy,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, in a recent statement. “Over three times as many solar panels were installed in 2015 as the prior year, and the most ever in the state: 7.5 megawatts worth, enough to supply more than 900 Wisconsin homes’ annual electricity usage.”
Solar installations range from systems that run home water heaters to industrial applications that help to power, heat and cool large buildings. The latest business example is Central Storage & Warehouse in Madison, where 3,000 rooftop solar panels were recently commissioned.
With capacity to produce 741 kilowatts of power, it’s the largest solar project in Madison, the fourth-largest in the state and Wisconsin’s largest rooftop project. The panels were installed atop several refrigerated warehouses that store frozen, refrigerated and dry food, as well as Central Storage’s corporate offices.
The company expects to save about $90,000 in energy costs a year, a figure that reflects the continuing decline in the cost of solar installations. According to the Solar Industries Association, total costs have declined 48 percent since 2010, making it more cost-effective for businesses and others to invest.
The Central Storage project was managed by SunPeak, a Madison-based solar project developer that has completed several other projects in Wisconsin and Iowa. Most of the Central Storage work was finished in 2015 but it was commissioned in April after Madison Gas & Electric Co. completed a transformer upgrade.
“(Central Storage) was interested in offsetting a significant portion of its electric utility consumption, primarily used for refrigeration,” said SunPeak President Chad Sorenson in a statement. “SunPeak was able to engineer and install a system that simultaneously lowered its overall cost of electricity, and enhanced its sustainability by powering its facility with natural sunlight.”
SunPeak itself is an example of how Wisconsin’s solar industry is growing. There are more than 175 solar companies in Wisconsin, according to the national solar association, working in various parts of the supply chain. About 90 companies are installers and contractors, more than 50 are engaged in manufacturing, about 20 are developers or distributors, and another 30 work in financing, engineering and other support functions. Those firms collectively employ about 1,900 people and spread across the state.
The declining cost of solar panels and various incentives, such as rebates and tax credits, are a big part of why solar is growing as a percentage of Wisconsin’s overall energy mix. (The state is still heavily dependent on coal-fired plants for electricity generation; about 62 percent in 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)
Consumer and utility company interest is also driving solar adoption. Solar energy is a renewable, clean source of power that consumers increasingly expect to see as a part of their local utility company’s portfolio. That was evident during an April 19 community discussion hosted by MGE, which attracted more than 200 people for a four-hour discussion of the utility’s 2030 plan.
At Alliant Energy, which serves much of southern Wisconsin and parts of Iowa, a solar project will be unveiled Tuesday at the utility’s offices on Madison’s East Side, where a “solar learning laboratory” already exists. Other Wisconsin utilities with solar investments range from Xcel Energy, which has a growing percentage of renewables in its portfolio, to community providers in Eau Claire, River Falls, New Richmond, Medford, Greenwood, Viroqua and beyond.
Not all days in Wisconsin are sunny, but a warming climate for solar energy is making the most out of those that are.