Last month, Governor Tony Evers delivered an ambitious clean energy vision for Wisconsin, which the editors of the Wisconsin State Journal aptly summarized: “Goal: Carbon-free by 2050.”
Executive Order #38 creates the state’s Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy, and directs the new office to “achieve a goal of ensuring all electricity consumed within the State of Wisconsin is 100 percent carbon-free by 2050.” This office will take the lead in planning and coordinating the Evers Administration’s efforts to greatly increase its own reliance on carbon-free electricity, and develop strategies for expanding clean energy throughout the state. The administration envisions accomplishing these goals through a partnership with other state agencies and state electric utilities.
To demonstrate that this initiative will very much be a team effort, Governor Evers was joined by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Public Service Commission Chairperson Becky Cameron Valcq and Department of Natural Resources Secretary-designee Preston Cole.
With this order, clean energy becomes again a policy priority, advanced to not only bolster the state’s economy and protect its natural resources, but also promote the health and well-being of its citizenry. What’s also notable about Evers’ initiative is the degree to which it is grounded in climate science. The order frames climate change as an escalating environmental problem that is already doing harm to the state on several fronts. An effective response from state government, therefore, demands aggressive and sustained action. Moving to carbon-free electricity by 2050 certainly qualifies on that score.
Now, an executive order is not the same thing as a law. Executive orders carry no legal weight, which explains why they are narrowly drawn to address matters that are totally within a governor’s control, such as agency priorities. Moreover, they are not binding on future governors and their administrations. That said, we are hopeful that the clean energy actions taken today by this Administration will cultivate, over time, buy-in from state legislators, and that from this order will emerge comprehensive, forward-looking policies that will put Wisconsin on track to becoming a renewable energy leader.
Wisconsin utility commitments set the stage
As audacious as it may appear, Evers’ clean energy goal is actually in line with recent utility commitments to decarbonizing their generation mix. Whether set at 80% or at 100% by 2050, the level of carbon reductions that Wisconsin electric providers have publicly embraced are ambitious, when compared with current levels. In 2018, the percentage of renewable and nuclear generation combined, relative to total sales, was approximately 25%. We’ll probably need to quadruple today’s volume of carbon-free electricity, depending on how much energy efficiency reduces our consumption compared with how much transportation and other direct uses of fossil fuels become electrified by 2050. No matter what happens, this transition will require a concerted and sustained push on the part of every electric provider.
Fortunately for the state’s utilities, there has never been a more propitious time to invest in carbon-free electricity, especially from wind and solar plants, than right now. The capital costs of new wind and solar farms are at their all-time lows, and their operating costs are a fraction of what it costs to buy the fuel for coal and natural gas plants operating today.
The signs that utilities are seizing this opportunity are multiplying. As they move to permanently shutter older and less efficient coal- and natural gas-fired generators, Wisconsin power providers are either busy purchasing more renewable electricity from new plants or building more solar and wind farms for themselves.
Powering up Wisconsin agriculture
In the week following Governor Evers’ Executive Order, ground was broken for the Two Creeks plant, one of the two large solar plants owned by Madison Gas and Electric and WEC Energy. Located a mile from the Point Beach Nuclear Power Plant, this 800-acre solar farm will, by itself, more than double existing solar capacity when completed next year, from 120 megawatts (MW, measured in AC or alternating current) to 270 MW.
That total will more than double again when the 300 MW Badger Hollow solar farm, located in Iowa County, becomes fully operational at the end of 2021. And other Wisconsin utilities, WPPI Energy and Dairyland Power, have signed power purchase agreements from 249 additional megawatts of solar from two projects, both of which are now seeking approval from the Public Service Commission and could also be built in 2020-2021.
Solar farms deliver far more value to the public and the planet than simply megawatt-hours of electricity produced and tons of carbon dioxide avoided. There are also the jobs that go into the construction of these arrays, the revenues that allow farmers to keep farming their land, revenue payments to local governments that host the projects, and the rich habitat for pollinators and wildlife that is created as the soil recharges. Harnessing solar energy for productive purposes has been and will continue to be integral to Wisconsin agriculture.
Meet the 100% renewable energy club
To put an exclamation mark on the last point, one of the most productive actors on the American agriculture scene—LaFarge-based Organic Valley Cooperative—financed the construction of two smaller solar farms in western Wisconsin. These two arrays—one in Arcadia and the other in Cashton—were energized last month and are now sending power into the grid.
That new increment of renewable electricity, when added to Organic Valley’s previous investments in solar and wind power, will enable the cooperative to offset 100% of its electricity use from zero-carbon, renewable sources. Organic Valley is the largest U.S. food brand to have accomplished that feat.
Organic Valley is the second Wisconsin enterprise to achieve a 100% renewable electricity goal. The first was La Crosse-based Gundersen Health System, which achieved that milestone five years ago through a combination of intensive efficiency measures and small-scale renewable power projects, usually off-site. In addition to reducing its energy overhead and passing the savings along to the people it serves, Gundersen wanted also to lead by example, demonstrating to the health care industry that sustainable energy is “healthy, socially responsible and economically beneficial.”
It is not unrealistic to expect that, in the next 10 years, hundreds of businesses and local governments will manage to achieve the same feat pioneered by Gundersen and Organic Valley.
Connecting customers to solar power
When Gundersen pursued energy efficiency to reduce its energy overhead and generate carbon-free electricity as offsets, it had to settle on a path that effectively bypassed the electric providers serving their facilities. But some utilities are no longer content to stand on the sidelines while their customers sponsor new clean energy generation by their own initiative. Newer services such as shared solar and renewable energy sleeve tariffs enable self-selecting customers and utilities to partner on new clean power projects.
For example, Xcel Energy’s Solar*Connect Community program has been particularly successful in eliciting customer subscriptions to purchase electricity produced from new solar arrays in western Wisconsin. While there is an up-front cost to this service, the price of solar power is fixed, and may over time become less expensive than standard electricity, depending on the size and frequency of future rate increases.
It’s worth noting that this is not a required service in Wisconsin, and therefore many residents and businesses here do not have access to a utility-provided shared solar service. Expanding shared solar throughout the state would allow more residents and businesses to benefit from the clean energy evolution.
Wind power returning for duty
Back in 2006, when Wisconsin’s renewable energy standard was raised to its current level, wind power was poised to become the workhorse of the renewable electricity world. It did become so in several states, among them Texas and Iowa. But while wind power supplies 16% of Texas’ electricity and nearly 40% of Iowa’s power, Wisconsin’s rancorous siting and permitting climate has severely hobbled wind’s growth here since 2011. Right now, wind accounts for about 2.5% of electricity produced in the Badger State. Wisconsin utilities own, or buy power from, wind farms in other states which, if included, brings the total amount of wind being credited to Wisconsin customers to about 7% of the state’s electricity consumption.
Wind development activity is beginning to rebound, however, especially in the southwestern part of the state. But it will need to spread beyond the small pockets of the state where the current population of wind farms now operate. With capital costs going down and turbine productivity going up, wind development can occur cost-effectively over a wider swath of Wisconsin than what was considered suitable 10 years ago.
And why not include Lake Michigan among the areas that can host tomorrow’s wind farms? Engineering advances and improvements in foundation design make offshore wind power in waters deeper than 100 feet a feasible option. The ripple effects through the eastern Wisconsin economy would be substantial, especially for companies that manufacture cranes and marine construction vessels. Offshore wind can happen here with the right leadership.
But while the picture for wind power going forward remains uncertain, it’s all systems go for solar power. What is now an affordable resource for power providers is also an equally attractive option for electricity customers of all sizes, classes, and groupings, whether the solar array is dedicated to one home or business or to a school district or local government. Partnerships forming around solar energy are multiplying across the state and much of the nation.
Customer-sited generation growing, but needs to be unleashed
From 2013 to 2018, customer-sited generation was the primary bright spot in Wisconsin’s renewable energy landscape. Customer-sited solar grew from 17 megawatts in 2013 to about 80 megawatts by year-end 2018, and the market continues to grow as the cost of installing solar power has declined. Initiatives like our Solar for Good and Faith & Solar programs have made solar power an affordable option for more than 40 nonprofits across Wisconsin, with 30 more working on projects this year.
But we know there are speed bumps, and it’s past time to fix them. The 20 kilowatt net metering threshold set by most of Wisconsin’s utilities often and unnecessarily limits the ability of customers, especially larger businesses and nonprofits, to supply themselves with renewable power. Generators that exceed the net metering threshold are penalized for exporting power to the grid.
This situation has especially been hard on Wisconsin’s biogas generators. After their initial contracts expire, biogas generators face the prospect of a 60% reduction in revenue flow. Many have already stopped generating electricity as a result, and are now flaring biogas instead.
With Wisconsin utilities now clearly moving towards building renewable power and retiring coal plants, it’s time to equalize the treatment of customer-sited renewable generators relative to large solar farms. If utilities need more daytime power capacity, they should credit distributed generators like solar and biodigesters at the same level that is accorded to their own renewable power plants. Our net metering rules need to be strengthened to capture more of the great potential and benefits that we know distributed generation brings to Wisconsin.
It’s also time to enable financing of clean energy systems, such as third-party leases and power purchase agreements, so that more low- and moderate-income Wisconsinites can take advantage of “pay as you go” solar energy financing options which are commonly available in more than half of the United States.
The value of partnerships
A particularly powerful example of solar partnerships can be found in the Ashland-Washburn-Bayfield area. Operating on a shoestring over its four-year history, Cheq Bay Renewables, an all-volunteer organization, has designed and developed several community-scale projects notable for their affordability and popularity. One of these is a solar group buy program, now in its second year, that has yielded nearly one megawatt of new capacity serving area homes, farms, and small businesses.
Supported initially by a $10,000 Solar in Your Community Challenge grant from U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE), the organization’s latest venture is set to deliver more than a dozen solar systems to schools, county-administered housing, wastewater treatment plants, and other public facilities in the Washburn-Bayfield area. Cheq Bay’s next project after that will put solar systems on three tribal buildings serving the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Half the funding for Bad River’s solar systems will come from U.S. DOE.
Through a combination of creativity, resourcefulness, and hard work, Cheq Bay Renewables has been the catalyst for the renewable energy transformation occurring in northern Wisconsin. Though the progress it has made thus far is nothing short of amazing, it wouldn’t be happening without all the partnerships that Cheq Bay has meticulously cultivated with local governments, federal and state agencies, electric providers, and sustainable energy professionals.
Partnerships like these are essential for getting the job done. And Executive Order 38 sets the stage for a new round of partnerships and collaboration to achieve the bold vision for Wisconsin’s clean energy future that Governor Evers and his Administration now embrace. From what’s happening on the ground, we know many initiatives are delivering results today, and these bright spots will be the foundation to creating a statewide clean energy success story.
“I worry about my children and grandchildren and not leaving a mess for them. Having something sustainable for them. I think solar is a great idea. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” These are the words of Mike, a navy veteran, and former police officer who lives in the James A. Peterson Veteran Village in Racine, WI. It’s a complex of 15 tiny homes and a community center that is now powered by the sun.
Mike spent 6 years in the navy and traveled all over the world. After his service, he went to school and then joined the police force in Chicago. “I spent 20 years in law enforcement. You’ve been doing something so long. Then I lost my wife, my house. I was homeless when I found out about Veterans Outreach in Racine. Jeff and Shannon welcomed me in.”
Mike was a yeoman in the navy, performing administrative and clerical work. This experience landed him a job in the Veterans Outreach office. According to Mike, Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin serves about 300 veterans per week in the food pantry. They also provide clothing, transportation (when needed), and tiny homes for veterans in the back. The tiny houses provide residents with a bed, television, and a small storage space. “You have to come out of there for the bathroom, shower, and the best kitchen in the world!” Mike said. “A lot of guys want to try to isolate, but you have to come in and you start talking. It’s good that you have to leave that cabin. You get up, take a shower, check your email, and slowly get yourself back into it.”
Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin is different than a shelter. It’s a recovery program offering meals, classes, and connections. The organization helps veterans find jobs and offers financial classes and community meetings. “They are good people,” Mike said. “They don’t get a lot of money, but they seldom say ‘no’ to anybody.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, almost 38,000 Veterans are experiencing homelessness. While this number declined by 5% between 2017 and 2018, it’s still a distressing statistic. This is what inspired Jeff Gustin to co-found the center in 2013. “The whole idea that someone puts a uniform on and ends up homeless is crazy. Our nation is better than that,” Jeff said.
Walden Middle and High School, a school that focuses on the environment and sustainability, approached Veterans Outreach about helping them put solar on their SC Johnson Community Center. The Walden High School students raised over $20,000 for the solar project and the students’ efforts inspired a $10,000 matching grant from an anonymous donor. They also received a $10,000 Solar for Good grant, and were awarded a Focus on Energy prescriptive grant. Veterans Outreach paid for the rest of the project with their own funding, costs they plan to recover through offset electricity bills.
“It took very little to get this off the ground for us. The school approached us about it. We weren’t in a position to do this ourselves. We were just getting residents moved in and they ran with it. We had very little we had to do on our end and we’re very grateful.” Jeff said. The nearly 20 kilowatt array, installed by Arch Electric, is expected to save the organization almost $4,000 in annual utility costs. That’s money that the Veterans Outreach can put towards their mission. “For the person that does the bills. It’s huge for us,” Jeff said.
Jeff, Mike, and the rest of the Veterans Outreach team are still learning about solar and seeing the actual cost savings at the end of the year may inspire them to look into other solar projects. They just bought two new buildings to accommodate a larger food pantry to serve their clients. “I’m glad we’re lowering our carbon footprint. This is our future,” Jeff said. “One day I might go back to the high school and ask them if they’re ready for round two!”
RENEW Wisconsin’s Solar for Good program will issue 36 grants to Wisconsin nonprofit organizations to install new solar-electric systems. Altogether, these grants will total over $445,000 and will lead to more than $4.5 million in new solar investment. The new solar arrays, planned for installation over the next twelve months, will add 2.13 megawatts (MW) of new solar power to Wisconsin’s electric mix.
This round of funding featured a diverse group of awardees from every part of Wisconsin. The winning projects include:
- Beloit College will convert a former coal-fired power plant into a carbon-neutral student activity center, complete with solar electric and geothermal heating.
- Sawyer County Housing Authority will install solar arrays on 6 multi-family, low-income housing facilities, which will directly offset their residents’ utility bills
- Primates Inc, a sanctuary for retired primates from the research and film industry, plans to construct a 30-kilowatt array for their habitats near Westfield.
RENEW’s fall 2018 funding period builds on the success of Solar for Good’s previous rounds in the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018. During the first and second funding rounds, RENEW issued over $200,000 in grants, helping 23 Wisconsin-based nonprofits invest over $1.67 million in new solar projects.
“Solar for Good has reached new heights,” said Heather Allen, Program Director for RENEW Wisconsin. “With these 36 grants, Solar for good will generate $4.5 million in new solar projects. This will help nonprofits across the state lower their energy costs, inspire their communities, and promote a cleaner, healthier Wisconsin.”
The following organizations have been offered Solar for Good grants to install new solar electric systems:
Abinooji Aki, provides education on Native American values/teachings, Hayward
Attic Angel Place, a senior living campus and assisted living facility, Middleton
Beaver Dam Family Ice Arena, community ice-skating facility, Beaver Dam
Beloit College, liberal arts college, Beloit
Bethel Horizons, a retreat center and art education campus, Dodgeville
Blackhawk Evangelical, house of worship, Middleton
Christ Lutheran Church, house of worship, Spring Green
Housing Authority of Milwaukee, low-income housing provider, Milwaukee
Humane Society of Burnett County, safe haven for stray/unwanted animals, Webster
Juda School District, public education, Juda
Friends of Lawton Memorial Library, public library and learning center, La Farge
Literacy Network, adult reading, writing, and computer education facility, Madison
Madison Audubon Society, wildlife habitat protection, education, & advocacy, Madison
NeighborWorks Green Bay, low-income housing provider, Green Bay
Northland Lutheran High School, private education, Kronenwetter
Operation Fresh Start, adult education and job skill training facility, Madison
Oregon Ice Arena, community ice-skating facility, Oregon
Primates Inc, a sanctuary for primates retired from research and film industry, Westfield
Random Lake School District, public education, Random Lake
Redeemer Lutheran Church, house of worship, Milwaukee
Redeemer City Church, house of worship, Fitchburg
Sawyer County Housing Authority, low-income housing provider, Sawyer County
Sisters of Saint Francis, religious order, Green Bay
Solon Springs School District, public education, Solon Springs
St. Dennis Congregation, house of worship, Madison
Washburn Elementary and High Schools, public education, Washburn
Wisconsin Conference United Church of Christ, house of worship, Deforest
Two organizations have asked to remain anonymous at this time.
The Solar for Good program is primarily funded by philanthropists Cal and Laurie Coulliard of Deerfield. Solar for Good grants fund up to 20% of an organization’s solar installation. RENEW plans to issue another round of grant-funding in spring 2019. To learn more, please visit the Solar for Good website.