Backward Steps on Clean Energy in Wisconsin? Not at the local level…

, policy analyst, Clean Energy | September 1, 2016, 2:06 pm EDT
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Despite a state legislature that has taken steps backward on clean energy in Wisconsin, policies and programs at the local level are moving the state in the right direction. For example, the state has met its very modest RPS targets but has not increased them, leading to stagnation in Wisconsin’s wind sector even as wind development has continued at a robust level nationally. The state legislature also slashed funding to its energy efficiency programs earlier this year. Some utilities in Wisconsin have also proposed high fixed charges that would have a chilling effect on solar investment.

But despite these setbacks, local governments and the utilities that serve them in Wisconsin are moving in the right direction through several promising actions at the local level.

Dairyland Power is moving forward with clean energy

Dairyland Power Cooperative, a La Crosse Wisconsin based utility, plans to purchase 98 megawatts of electricity from a wind farm to be built near Platteville, Wisconsin. Construction on the Quilt Block Wind Farm is slated to begin next year.  The 49 turbines are expected to begin generation by the end of 2017.

The wind farm will be owned and operated by EDP Renewables North America, and is projected to be Wisconsin’s fourth largest wind farm. This purchase agreement will grow Dairyland’s wind energy capacity from about 4.5 percent to more than 12.6 percent.

In addition to the wind farm, Dairyland has also recently broke ground on a major utility-scale solar project to purchase power from over 15 MW of solar spread across 12 sites, and announced that they would be providing 12 kilowatt solar installations to three Wisconsin schools through their Solar for Schools initiative.

WPPI Wind

Last month WPPI Energy announced that the Sun Prairie-based utility has issued a request for proposals (RFP) for approximately 100 MW of electric generating capacity from wind power or an equivalent amount of energy from other renewable resources.

The RFP will help the utility identify potential resources to meet projected energy needs while ensuring they are in a strong position to comply with future environmental regulations, including the Clean Power Plan. It’s expected that with the recent extension of the ITC and PTC federal tax credits bidders may be able to offer renewables to cost effectively fill the utility’s need for future power supply resources.

Wind, solar and other renewables currently make up approximately 14% of WPPI Energy’s energy supply portfolio.

Community solar projects are becoming popular as a way to provide access to solar for everyone while being able to take advantage of the economies of scale for larger projects. (Source: Wikimedia)

Community solar projects are a way to provide access to solar for everyone while being able to take advantage of the economies of scale for larger projects. (Source: Wikimedia)

Madison Gas and Electric’s community solar project

Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) recently began a community solar project, called the Shared Solar Program. Community solar allows community members the opportunity to share the benefits of solar power even if they cannot install solar panels on their property.  The Shared Solar Program is a large solar array with a capacity of 500 kilowatts (kW), and is planned for the roof of the Middleton Municipal Operations Center. Given the type and efficiencies of the solar panels, and the region’s solar exposure, MGE expects to generate about 650,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually from the project.

UCS National Advisory Board member and former UW-Madison professor Wesley Foell installed a solar water heating system on his roof in 1979 at his Madison home. Because of shade from large oak trees reducing the efficacy of the panels and Wes’ need for a new roof, the solar panels were removed in 2015. Thankfully for Wes, he was able to participate in MGE’s Shared Solar Program.

Wes signed up to purchase a 1.5 kilowatt solar block which is estimated to produce approximately 2000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, which is half of his annual usage. He pays an upfront charge of $284.  If non-solar electricity rates increase at a rate of three or more percent per year, this arrangement provides him an acceptable financial return and contributes to the increased use of clean renewable energy. The small upfront participation fee and ability to lock in rates for 25 years removes some of the largest barriers to entry for Wisconsin residents.

Madison’s carbon reduction goal

This past spring Madison’s City Council adopted the City of Madison Energy Work Plan which was drafted by the Sustainable Madison Committee (SMC). The SMC was tasked with developing an energy and carbon action plan to establish Madison as a leader on energy innovation, racial and social equity, and environmental health.

An ad-hoc working group of seven Sustainable Madison Committee members participated in four publicly noticed meetings that invited nearly 3 dozen community members to identify and advocate for specific policies, practices and partnerships. SMC members subsequently recommended a work plan based on concepts vetted throughout the process.

The goal of the plan was to formulate and implement an energy policy consistent with the Madison Sustainability Plan that aims to reduce fossil-fuel based energy consumption and expand use of renewable energy sources in public and private buildings. The ambitious plan was adopted and commits the city to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, reduce overall energy consumption by half by 2030, and obtain 25% of its electricity, heating, and transportation energy from clean sources by 2025.

Next steps

While the current political climate makes the prospect of state legislation less than likely, the real story out of Wisconsin is that great progress can be made at the local level and that Wisconsin may just be creating a blueprint for local change laying the foundation for clean energy growth.

These actions at the local level show the benefits of investing in clean energy, and this should provide an impetus for adopting stronger clean energy policies such as increasing the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.

Posted in: Energy

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  • solodoctor

    Thanks for an informative and instructive lesson in how local efforts can make a difference even in the context of a state government which is dragging its feet on moving towards a greater reliance on renewables.

    What can/does UCS intend to do to help nudge the state towards increasing its RPS? I am not a resident of Wisconsin but I stand ready to help via signing petitions, sending emails to elected officials, etc.

    • Jessica Collingsworth

      Thank you for your comment, and your willingness to help support our efforts. UCS did an analysis in 2010 showing the economic and CO2 benefits of increasing the state’s RPS to 25 percent by 2025. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/smart-energy-solutions/increase-renewables/raising-the-bar-WI-RES.html#.V9fg-MspDqA.

      We are currently monitoring the state closely and working with fellow advocates in the state. We are hoping that the momentum at the local level will move Wisconsin forward on renewable energy at the state level too. We’ll be sure to keep you posted on action items, and opportunities to pitch in and spread support for renewable energy.

  • Jeffro Salasio

    I’m from Michigan but packed up everything and moved to California to work for SolarCity. I’ve decided my lifes work will be in the renewable energy field. My end goal is to help the transition of solar come to Michigan and the midwest in general…when do you think the midwest (Michigan) makes the transition?

    • solodoctor

      You came to Calif for the best of reasons! Welcome and best wishes for a productive career and happy life here where I have lived for more than 50 years now.

    • Jessica Collingsworth

      Thanks for the comment. I agree it’s definitely when, and not if, solar achieves significant market share in Michigan and the Midwest more generally. If you compare to California (or Colorado, New Jersey or several other states), then Michigan is significantly behind in its development of solar resources. However, when compared to just a few years ago, we’ve seen some progress, which is outlined in my colleague Sam Gomberg’s most recent blog (http://blog.ucsusa.org/sam-gomberg).

      We are seeing signs of accelerating growth in coming years. Distributed solar is also beginning to take off, with more than 2,000 people now participating in Michigan’s net metering program – a 20% increase over last year and with utility community solar programs now in place. All this being said, it’s still fair to say that Michigan and the Midwest have a long way to go to achieve their full potential when it comes to solar resources. But recent trends are promising and near-term policy decisions in Midwest states will be critical to sustaining and building that momentum.