By Tom Still

MADISON – Matt Neumann’s Pewaukee-based company, Sunvest
Solar, is running hot these days. It has more than 210 solar energy projects in
some phase of installation, he told attendees at a recent conference in
Madison, but only one in Wisconsin.

Why? Perhaps because Wisconsin, unlike other states, has yet
to officially bless third-party owned electric systems. Under this model, the
contractor owns the solar panels and leases them to the building’s owner,
whether a business or a home owner, thus dramatically reducing initial costs to
the consumer.

In case you think Neumann is a classic enviro-liberal, think
again: He’s the son of former Republican member of Congress Mark Neumann and a
firm believer that the economics of solar power have improved to the point that
it now makes sense – as in dollars and cents.

“Any conservative should be in favor of free-market
competition,” Matt Neumann said. “It’s the energy industry competing for who
can provide power for the lowest cost.”

One speaker after another at the Renew Wisconsin Policy Summit
cited examples of how other states, often Midwest neighbors but also
politically “red” states around the country, are forging ahead with strategies
that involve solar, wind, biomass and other renewable generation sources.

While state officials in Wisconsin are cautious about
getting too far ahead of the market’s ability to absorb such energy – and to
get that energy where it needs to go – the industry trend is toward a portfolio
that includes more renewables. In Wisconsin, which has a strong reliance on
coal and natural gas from other states and nations, that trend may be
unavoidable over time.

Not all renewables are created equal, however. Wisconsin has
surprising advantages in solar energy and waste-to-energy digesters, for
example, but not a lot of available wind energy sites large enough to support
massive wind farms.

While solar energy has high upfront costs, the return on
investment can be seven to 10 years, and the solar panels continue to provide
energy for years to come.

Wisconsin is the nation’s leading state when it comes to
building digesters that convert dairy farm waste into energy – think tons of
available cow manure – although other states are closing the gap. A
Chilton-based company, DVO, is the state’s leading producer of such digesters,
but much of its work these days is spread from Vermont to Vietnam.

As pressure builds to contain farm waste from reaching
groundwater and surface water, especially in parts of the state where the soil
is relatively thin, digesters may help provide answers that keep the dairy
industry and smaller farms in business.

Wind power sites sometimes encounter local opposition,
especially if they’re big enough, and the power they produce can be
intermittent. But many supporters of renewable energy think a logical solution
is to tap into wind energy produced more steadily elsewhere, such as Minnesota,
Iowa and across the High Plains, through transmission lines.

One such project on the docket in Wisconsin is a joint
venture by Xcel Energy and American Transmission Company to build a
high-voltage line, called the Badger Coulee line, to transport low-cost
electricity produced by wind farms into the state’s electric grid. Supporters
say it will enhance reliability throughout the system while tapping into a
renewable source.

Other factors may influence Wisconsin government and
businesses over time. A coalition of Eastern states is petitioning for lower
carbon and particulate emissions from Midwest states, and major companies
everywhere are expecting other policies, such as a low-carbon fuels standard or
a revenue-neutral “carbon tax,” that will affect bottom-line performance.

Renewables won’t be the only answer for Wisconsin, of
course. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are producing vast amounts
of oil and gas elsewhere, and plans for next-generation nuclear plants are
being touted as safer and less expensive. One thing seems certain, however:
Wisconsin cannot afford to sit still while others around us embrace more
comprehensive and economically sensible energy strategies.