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Small Town, Big Sustainability

While 2016 was the warmest year on record, NASA records show that the ten warmest years since scientists began recording the Earth’s surface temperature have all occurred since 2000. For those who understand that human activity is warming our planet, there is a growing sense of urgency to make energy choices that limit the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The good news is that in the last few years, America’s energy choices have increasingly favored renewables. A recent Gallup poll shows that 67% of Americans support increased investment in renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar. Yet, even with demand on the rise, many communities in Wisconsin and the energy utilities that serve them lack easy answers for providing renewable forms of energy. Energy demands, geography, environmental impacts, and economics are just a few of the considerations that go into making energy choices. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to addressing energy use and global warming, and many people find the problem too nebulous or unwieldy to address. 

For Larry Bean, it’s the impact that climate change will have on his community that drives his decisions about energy use.

Bean, who has spent nearly fifty years immersed in environmental science and policy—first as a professor and then as a state energy administrator—is very much aware of the ways in which burning fossil fuels has driven climate change. While he was able to explore the science behind global warming as a teacher, it was his 22 years as the head of the Iowa State Energy Office that helped Bean understand how communities can control their role in climate change.

“We worked on policies and programs that reduced energy consumption of government, modeled ways that citizens could reduce their use, and advocated for the development of renewable energy technologies. The work and concern in those years was to implement mitigation efforts for climate change and to develop more sustainable energy resources,” Bean says. “So I’m very concerned about the climate.”

Bean isn’t the only one. 

Over the course of 2016, Wisconsin began construction on more solar energy projects than in any other previous year. Last year we added more than 30 megawatts of new capacity—enough to supply about 5,000 Wisconsin homes with electricity for an entire year—through projects ranging from utility-based solar arrays to commercial and residential rooftop installations in Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, and the Chippewa  Valley.

Today, the American solar industry workforce is bigger than that of oil and gas workforce combined, and nearly three times the size of the entire coal mining workforce. With solar equipment costs plummetting (nearly 70% since 2010) and concern rising over another year of record-breaking heat, citizens are looking for ways to use clean energy to power their homes and businesses while protecting the health of the people, land, and waters they hold dear.

 

Building a resilient community

As retirees, Bean and his wife spend half of the year in the small, unincorporated town of La Pointe on Madeline Island, which is part of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. 

About eight years ago, Bean became a catalyst for clean energy in La Pointe. Building on the community’s interest in sustainability and a shared love for the natural environment, he encouraged the town board to create an energy committee—a committee he now chairs—to increase the island community’s energy resilience and sustainability.

“The ideal would be to make municipal operations resilient to any threat [such as a major storm], says Bean. “So we’re looking at how to get to a point where the island could operate whether there’s power from the major utility company or not.”

After a series of energy audits, the Town of La Pointe made some efficiency-based changes such as switching to LED light bulbs and ensuring municipal buildings were well insulated against the island’s harsh Wisconsin winters. 

After that, the energy committee comprised of six La Pointe residents pursued both wind and solar as alternative forms of energy to power the town’s municipal buildings. But because of the island’s relatively small size—fourteen miles long and three miles wide—there were few feasible sites for a wind turbine. Other considerations, such as a special dock large enough for installing and maintaining the turbine and the challenge of running transmission lines from the site to the town, made wind energy a nonstarter for the community. 

So, the La Pointe energy committee turned their focus to solar. They applied for and received a $75,000 grant from the Wisconsin State Energy Office (now the Office of Energy Innovation), and the town received an additional donation of $20,000 from the local library to install a solar array on the island and also lay the groundwork for a solar microgrid.

Like a solar array, a microgrid generates energy from the sun’s rays. But while solar arrays are reliant on traditional electric transmission grids to distribute energy to customers, microgrids have control software that can sense when, say, a tree knocks down a power line, and disconnect from the grid to rely on their own solar and other distributed energy resources to keep the lights on.

The energy committee hired Chippewa Valley Alternative Energy to do a planning study, and, upon completion of the study, contracted North Wind Renewable Energy to do the installation. Today, the 18.2-kilowatt (kW) solar array, built in the center of La Pointe just minutes from the ferry line, provides enough energy to power two of the town’s municipal buildings. 

“We’ve taken the first step. We have a solar array that provides about 112% of the annual electricity needed for our medical clinic and library,” says Bean. “But to be able to operate without power from Xcel Energy [the local utility provider] we would need battery backup or another way to generate power when the sun isn’t shining, so we still have a ways to go.” 

Next summer the Town of La Pointe board plans to add additional solar panels to power the town hall. If the energy committee is able to keep up the momentum and funding for more solar, they hope the town will add the school, emergency services building, winter transportation building, and the materials recovery center to the proposed solar microgrid. Very soon, every municipal building in the town could be powered by sunlight. 

“Madeline Island is such an excellent demonstration site for people to learn, see, and realize the impact of these kinds of initiatives,” says Bean. “The town board is unanimous in its support for our committee and our work, and the fact that this is an environmentally sound thing to do is part of that support.”

 

Responding to consumer demand

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 13% the electricity in the U.S. in 2015 was generated from renewable energy sources, including hydroelectric, wind, biomass (both wood and waste), solar, and geothermal. Yet few of us can directly harness wind or hydroelectric power. So we leave it to utilities to provide consumer access to renewable energy.

Advances in clean energy technology are creating new opportunities to produce energy more cheaply and efficiently from carbon-based sources such as natural gas. But, while natural gas may be cheap now, its price fluctuates according to supply and market demands. The cost of solar energy, on the other hand, continues to drop. Looking at the two energy sources side-by-side, one can see why solar is becoming increasingly attractive to energy providers.

Even though the future of the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from American power plants 32% below 2005 levels by 2030, remains uncertain, the falling cost of renewable energy and rising consumer demand will continue to drive carbon reduction strategies. Community interest in living more sustainably, more in balance with the environment, is also pushing utility companies to offer more renewable energy options through initiatives such as community solar.

A community solar project—usually called a solar farm or solar garden—is a solar array that has multiple shareholders such as homeowners, farms, and businesses. Ownership of a solar farm, whose generated energy is shared by its members, can be community-based or led by a third-party. It’s important to note that community solar participants are not physically connected to the project, so they do not receive energy directly from the array (it’s fed into the utility grid).

In Western Wisconsin, Vernon Electric Cooperative is responding to the demands of its customers—known as member-owners in the co-op world—by building and operating the first community solar project in Wisconsin that gives people the chance to choose the source of their energy. 

Joe McDonald, CEO and general manager of Vernon Electric Cooperative, has been in the co-op industry for close to thirty years. Cooperatives are organizations owned and run by members, each sharing in the profits and goods produced for their mutual benefit. The focus on members is what McDonald likes most about the co-op model. 

 “When I started at Vernon Electric Cooperative [in 2009], I had heard about community solar from my previous job and we had members that were interested in it. So we just kind of took the ball and went with it,” says McDonald.

In 2013 Vernon Electric Cooperative, with support from Dairyland Power Cooperative—a generation and transmission cooperative that supplies Vernon Electric with power—and  developer Clean Energy Collective LLC, broke ground on a community solar project near Westby.

“The reason we were able to build our community solar [farm] was because Dairyland Power built a 520 kW solar array on our property and then we tagged off of that and, using the same builder and contractors, were able to add [our arrays] much cheaper than we could have on our own—and substantially cheaper than an individual putting it on their own roof could,” says McDonald.

The co-op’s 305 kW solar farm, which went online in June 2014, today generates enough electricity to power thirty homes. “We sold the almost 1,000 panels [on the solar farm] in less than two weeks,” exclaims McDonald. “We’re one of the few models where we actually sell the panel. The norm has been that co-ops own the panel and simply sell the output, but our members like the idea that they can come and see and physically touch the panel. It’s part of the selling point,” McDonald says.

Another major selling point was the cost. While it can take 15 to 22 years to recoup the cost of a standard residential solar array, Vernon Electric was able to offer solar panels with a 12- to 13-year payback.

Two key factors leading to the high demand and success were the price point and flexibility that the project offered. Vernon Electric Cooperative was able to bring the cost down to less than $2 per watt by leveraging economies of scale (through Dairyland) to build the array, taking advantage of incentives for building the first community solar project in the state, and offering a $71 per-panel rebate through Vernon Electric’s Do Watt$ Right energy efficiency program.

For member-owners who don’t have the capacity to purchase solar panels, Vernon Electric Cooperative also offers an option to purchase renewable energy generated by Dairyland. This is a good fit for renters and others who might not want to make the long-term investment in solar panels.

 As Vernon Electric Cooperative’s 10,500 members become increasingly interested in renewable energy sources, McDonald hopes to offer more opportunities for them to pick and choose where their energy comes from.

“We have a very [environment-oriented] group in our service area,” says McDonald, noting that, “people have relocated to our area just for that [reason].” While protecting the natural environment is a primary driver for member-owner participation in the solar farm, McDonald says that many appreciate the ability to protect against future energy rate increases and reduce the carbon footprint of their homes, farms, and businesses.

No matter what happens on the state and federal level in regard to carbon regulation and environmental policy, local communities such as the Town of La Pointe and Vernon County are leading the transition to renewable energy. And they show no sign of slowing down. These ground-up movements calling for increased energy options demonstrate how smart energy choices can protect Wisconsin communities—and the world—from climate change.

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Jenny Peek is a freelance journalist based in Madison. Her articles on topics ranging from animal research to K–12 education to climate change have appeared in In Common, The International, Isthmus, and Wisconsin State Journal.

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