On the first day of August, a delegation from RENEW journeyed to the heart of the Driftless Area to take part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by Organic Valley Cooperative. What drew the participants to this location was a newly constructed 2.5 MW solar array perched on a hill overlooking Organic Valley’s distribution center along State Highway 27.
Behind the array stands two large wind turbines that are owned by Organic Valley and Gundersen Health System. Between the wind turbines, the solar array, and a number of other solar systems on the cooperative’s properties, Organic Valley now offsets 100% of its electric energy use with locally sourced renewable energy.
The array in Cashton is also a symbol of a project design that brought to fruition nine other solar arrays in the Upper Midwest serving rural communities. The post below, first published on Rootstock, Organic Valley’s blog, recounts how Organic Valley’s clean energy ambitions served as the catalyst for what is now one of the most creative renewable energy projects now operating in the United States.
How do you improve rural America?
By working together.
Out in the sunlight in 2016, two friends and former coworkers discussed what might be possible if their new employers came together to bring more solar to the Midwest. Could a major food brand become totally renewably powered? It was a dreamer’s conversation. A starshot. Luckily, they also found a way to be doers.
One of the dreamers worked for the cooperative behind Organic Valley, the largest farmer-owned organic cooperative in the country. You probably know Organic Valley from the milk, butter, and eggs in your fridge.
It’s kind of a crazy business.
So these dreamers met over lunch and ended up talking about a crazy goal: to make Organic Valley the world’s first 100% renewable-powered food company in just two years.
If you ask Stanley Minnick, Organic Valley’s energy services and technology manager, even he will tell you he didn’t quite know how to make it happen.
“I didn’t know exactly how it would all work out,” Minnick said, “but I knew if we just kept moving forward — and especially if we had the right partners — we could scale beyond our current wind, solar and geothermal and get to 100% renewable-powered.”
How would they get it done in “flyover country”? How would they focus on this project in a rural America that so many said was crumbling? How could they reach such an audacious goal in so little time?
The answer? Community.
As the goal evolved into a project, more partners — locally and beyond — stepped up to make the dream of a community solar partnership a reality.
Two creative and bold energy companies, OneEnergy Renewables and a group of Midwestern municipal utilities referred to as the Upper Midwest Municipal Energy Group (UMMEG), worked night and day to figure out how to structure the project. They, along with the City of Madison, Dr. Bronner’s and Clif Bar, brought their own intrepid goals to the table. Advocates and scientists at Fresh Energy, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund were engaged to find even more opportunities to create environmental benefits.
What started as a dream to become a 100% renewably powered food business became a community project that would benefit more than 23,000 rural Midwestern households within the scope of the overarching project. Suddenly, the project went beyond Organic Valley’s offices, warehouse and plants. It meant decades of cheaper energy from renewable sources for tens of thousands of rural Americans.
As the plans expanded, so did the logistics. Between the ten arrays in the full project, the team expected to increase the solar energy produced in Wisconsin by 30%. It was a big goal, and with solar tariffs and the elimination of government tax credits on the horizon, there were no options but to either run full steam at the goal or to stop the projects in their tracks.
They forged ahead. The dreamers turned into full-time doers, along with help from an entire team at Organic Valley, BluEarth Renewables, and even the state’s capitol city of Madison, Wisconsin.
The partners worked hard to figure out the finances, including the power purchase agreements and renewable energy credits, while the communities weathered real and financial storms at the same time. Two back-to-back 500-year floods inundated the communities where these panels would be installed. The rural areas were already seeing the effects of climate change.
In January 2019, some of the hardiest and hard-working people on Earth forged ahead into a brutal winter. They installed hundreds of steel posts and panel supports in frozen ground. Temperatures hit negative 30 degrees two nights in a row, and daytime temps barely got over zero degrees for weeks. Months later, the same crews battled muddy conditions to install the panels, wiring and other equipment needed to bring everything to life.
This community solar project, as a template for more projects around the country, was fighting for a brighter future as the rain fell on their hardhats. Still, the project was on track, if only a little delayed by an angry Mother Nature.
Rural America has an incredible resource many just don’t see: a sense of community that rivals anywhere else in the world.
When you drive through the small town of Viroqua (pop. 4,400), just 15 miles from the solar installation site, you’ll drive past a National Co-op Grocers’ food cooperative with solar panels on its roof, a restaurant that sources almost all of its food from local farms, and a farmers market that blows most bigger cities’ markets out of the water. And the community comes together in times of crisis, like when those 500-year floods ripped through a farmer’s backyard.
As the solar project needed help from partners in the other local communities and from the wider industry, people from different backgrounds stepped up. They started projects of their own, supported by a group of businesses intent on doing good in the world. And it’s working.
On August 1st, 2019, all the solar panels were finally in place and ready to make renewable energy for thousands. You can see the view for itself, nestled beneath the wind turbines in Cashton, Wisconsin, created from yet another powerful local partnership.
Organic Valley is now the biggest food brand to source all of the electricity for its owned facilities from 100% renewable energy. And it happened through partnership and cooperation.
Another Organic Valley employee has dreamed up a new innovative partnership that we can’t wait to share, but we kind of have to. This next big project will require even more collaboration and cooperation, but the end goal will be worth it: food made better. If you join the Organic Valley email list, you’ll be the first to hear about our big goals and new projects.
Rural America has a bright future, and it’s powered by dreamers and doers who work together toward big, crazy goals.
This article was written by Joshua Fairfield and first published on Rootstock, Organic Valley’s blog. You can view the original post HERE.
We Energies and RENEW Wisconsin are pleased to announce a settlement agreement with two important provisions regarding solar energy and customer-owned generation.
With the agreement, We Energies will no longer pursue a solar fixed-cost recovery charge as part of its rate review with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, and RENEW Wisconsin agrees to support an upcoming We Energies utility-scale solar project.
The two parties also agree to collaborate in a series of good-faith discussions for at least the next two years with the goal of finding potential areas of agreement on renewable energy and distributed generation as We Energies continues the transition to a clean energy future.
In November 2018 voters approved a $57 million referendum to build a new school and make improvements in the Monona Grove School District. As Monona Grove designs and plans a new 615-student elementary school, local residents are working to ensure the building includes renewable energy and sustainable design. You can follow the elementary school construction design process here. While there has been discussion of a 100% renewable energy resolution, this has not been formerly introduced to the Monona Grove School Board yet.
In June I had the pleasure of attending the Monona Grove School Board meeting and hearing from a number of clean energy supporters. Science teacher Tyler Keuhl made particularly thoughtful comments which I asked him to share with us. The following are excerpts from his remarks.
My name is Tyler Kuehl and I am a science teacher at the high school. Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight. Tonight I’d like to speak from a Monona Grove teacher perspective encouraging the district to adopt a 100% renewable energy resolution.
I’ve taught environmental science at Monona Grove High School for the past 7 years. One thing those of us who operate in educational circles have come to know quite well, is that learning is a two way street. When we get into education we hope that we can have a lifelong impact on our students, and we soon realize that our students teach us a great deal, as well. While I hope my former students have learned things about science and themselves, I know that I’ve learned a great deal from them. They care about a sustainable future and have taught me how important that is to them.
One of the themes in my curriculum comes from a quote that drives a lot of different things in my life. Edmund Burke said, “No man made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” I tell students that their own individual actions are vital even while they may seem small. In essence, I want my students to dream big, but not ignore the seemingly small daily opportunities they have to make a difference. In all honesty though, I don’t think adopting this resolution should even be seen as “dreaming big.” This is an action that has been taken by large cities and entire countries. It’s time for us to play our small part.
I get very similar feedback from every group of students at the end of each year; that environmental science should be a required course. I agree in a sense. The significance of these problems necessitates the education of all who walk through the doors of Monona Grove School District buildings. However, I don’t think you accomplish that by making environmental science a required course. I think you accomplish that by becoming a sustainable district.
Students should be interacting with concepts that encourage a sustainable future throughout their educational career. We need to teach students the history of how we got to where we are, the energy solutions, economic models and strategies, the psychology of changing behavior, and that there are social justice and career opportunities for every student in a society that must increasingly embrace sustainability. I think ultimately this is a curricular outcome of a district who takes steps to be sustainable itself.
Now the really cool thing about our district is that this is already happening organically. Students are learning some of these things and are taking action as individuals. It’s time for us to once again learn from them and follow their lead.
As a part of a project that I do in my class where I give the kids space and time to try and make an impact, they’ve done some great things for our school and community. They’ve raised funds to build two fresh water wells for schools in Uganda and reusable water bottle refilling stations at the high school. They’ve saved countless rolls of paper towels by doing the legwork to get electric hand dryers installed in first level bathrooms, which also saved the school thousands of dollars. They’ve created educational programing for elementary students to teach them about freshwater usage and plastic pollution. They’ve been leading the way on these things. As the adults in a district that’s mission is to, “enhance achievement for all students by cultivating a desire for learning and instilling a social responsibility” we must not squander this opportunity. It is beyond the time for our own social responsibility to kick in.
The old adage from Theodore Roosevelt, which rings true in so many ways inside education, echoes here as well. Students won’t care how much we know, until we show them how much we care. They know we know that climate change is a serious issue. But we as the adults in this district need to show them we care by adopting a 100% renewable energy resolution.
Thanks to Tyler for sharing his comments with the RENEW community! We will stay tuned as Monona Grove explores its renewable energy options.
Last weekend, the MREA Energy Fair brought people together to learn about clean energy and sustainability, connect with others, and take action towards a sustainable future. The Fair featured workshops, exhibitors, live music, inspiring keynote speakers, family fun, great local food, and more. The Energy Fair is the longest-running event of its kind in the nation and RENEW Wisconsin was excited to be a part of it!
RENEW staff presented some compelling workshops and you can download slides from their presentations below.
Clean Energy Communications
Jodi Jean Amble, RENEW’s Communications Director, presented a workshop on clean energy communications. She discussed 6 tenets of creating effective communications messages, shared insights from clean energy communications polling, and showcased some of RENEW’s recent campaigns.
Michael Vickerman, RENEW’s Policy Director, presented a workshop focused on communities across Wisconsin that are taking action to advance renewable energy in meaningful ways. Michael’s presentation surveys the specific action steps taken by individual municipalities to procure new supplies of solar energy and integrate carbon reduction goals into their own operations, including local transit options.
Heather Allen, RENEW’s Program Director, presented a workshop on solar farms featuring Bob Bishop, a local farmer from Iowa County renting his land out for the 300 Megawatt Badger Hollow Solar Farm. They talked about the economic, environmental and agricultural benefits of solar farms for rural communities. This workshop explored how to address frequently asked questions including those related to land use, food production, visual changes, and community values.
Sam Dunaiski, RENEW’s Program Manager, presented information on the Solar for Good program including how the program got started and how it assists nonprofits in going solar. The workshop also featured a panel of nonprofits and solar installers that participated in the program. Panelists were Joe Lenarz (Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School), Kelsey Parry (Heckrodt Wetland Preserve), Angie Kochanski (Arch Electric), and Doug Stingle (North Wind Renewable Energy).
Jane McCurry, RENEW’s Program Manager focusing on electric vehicles, presented a workshop for people interested in seeing EV adoption advance in the Midwest. The discussion included charging infrastructure, influencing policy, the benefits of driving electric, and why EVs are good for the community, state, and country.
On May 3rd, We Energies filed an unfortunate proposal that would effectively tax their customers who make power for their own use with solar panels or other renewable energy systems.
We Energies’ proposal, filed as part of their rate case at the Public Service Commission, revives a nearly-identical approach which was rejected by a Circuit Court Judge in 2015.
This time around, they’ve named their tax the “Fixed Cost Recovery Charge.” It would assess a charge of $3.53 per kilowatt of solar production, or about $180 per year for the average residential solar installation by We Energies’ estimation. This would mean a reduction of 20-25% of the expected dollar savings from a typical solar installation.
The charge would be $3.67 per kilowatt for small commercial customers, and We Energies stated they are planning to propose a similar charge for larger commercial and industrial customers which has not yet been formally filed.
This Proposal is Out of Step and Bad for Wisconsin
Just last month, very similar charges were rejected by the Michigan Public Service Commission and failed to pass in the Iowa House of Representatives. The Michigan PSC said the proposed charge was not based on the cost of serving customers and was thus unreasonable. In Iowa, a wide coalition, including the Iowa Pork Producers, opposed the “sunshine tax” and it failed to pass before the Legislature adjourned for the year.
At a time when citizens and businesses across the country are looking to dramatically increase their reliance on solar power and renewable energy, allowing a utility to discourage solar is the wrong direction for Wisconsin.
Let’s Support Investments in Solar and Renewable Energy, Not Penalize Them
There are so many reasons to support solar power and oppose this solar tax!
Solar is a growing industry in Wisconsin. The industry already employs over 3,000 Wisconsinites, and it’s just getting started.
Homegrown energy keeps our money in Wisconsin. According to the U.S. Energy Administration, Wisconsin ratepayers spent $700 million on natural gas and $893 million on coal to generate electricity in 2017. This is money sent out of state, since we have no coal or natural gas reserves. We should be encouraging private investments in homegrown energy generation like solar that keep our money in Wisconsin.
Clean energy brings economic development.Leading businesses across Wisconsin and the country increasingly want access to renewable energy. It’s going to be harder to attract these job creating businesses if our utilities are allowed to discourage them from investing in renewable energy solutions.
We should encourage private sector investment. Individuals and businesses putting their own money into solar power and renewable energy systems is a good thing, and should not be penalized or discouraged.
Solar helps keep energy costs down. With solar power, customers are providing peak power on those hot sunny days when we need it most. Every dollar invested by a person or business to generate their own energy lowers the demand on the entire system, and reduces the need for everyone to pay for more power plants and transmission lines to meet higher peak energy demands.
ALL solar is good. We Energies itself is starting to offer solar power programs for some of its larger customers, and telling investors they plan to reshape their power generation to include more solar. We completely agree that We Energies should be maximizing the benefit of solar. But they can’t discourage solar while simultaneously talking about how great it is. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Solar helps families and businesses cut costs and manage expenses. Solar power has become an affordable way to save money for many families and businesses. We need to make sure farmers, residents, businesses, and even our local governments have the opportunity to take advantage of the cost savings from solar and renewable energy.
Solar promotes cleaner air and water, now and into the future. Right now, Wisconsin is still using coal for 50% of our power! We all know that leads to air pollution and that coal emits carbon dioxide. Solar power systems located on homes and businesses, and owned by Wisconsin citizens and businesses, can help clean up our air and water now and for generations to come.
More information can be found at wisolarcoalition.com. The Wisconsin Solar Coalition is a growing alliance of nonprofits, businesses, and individuals.
Please join us by taking action today! Sign our petition opposing We Energies’ proposal to tax solar panel owners.
Over the past few weeks we have seen some exciting approvals of major solar farms in Wisconsin. The Badger Hollow, Two Creeks, and Richland County solar projects would combine to be 500 megawatts (MW) of solar power capacity, enough to supply about 130,000 homes’ average electricity usage each year in Wisconsin. Once completed, the 500 MW of solar photovoltaic (PV) will increase the state’s solar capacity five-fold. But a concern has been raised about how much land these projects will use, and the implications of future solar farms on Wisconsin cropland.
To learn more about these issues, we have analyzed the intersections of utility-scale solar PV and conventional agriculture and found a number of interesting points centered on the change in crop production and harvested land in Wisconsin.
Crop Production in Wisconsin • 1982-2017
Our first analysis looks at the change in total harvested cropland from 1982 to 2017 and links this to the change in the amount of crops actually produced over the same time period. The key finding here is simple: we are growing more crops today than we were 35 years ago and doing so on fewer harvested acres of land.
Taking data from USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, we analyzed conventional harvested crop groups in Wisconsin between 1982 to 2017. We had some important findings. One, the total amount of land harvested for all crops has decreased by about 9% from 1982 to 2017. In 1982, a little more than 10 million acres of land was harvested exclusively for the production of crops. In 2017, total harvested cropland totaled 9.2 million acres. Figure 1 below shows the change in total harvested land in these 35 years. In short, urban and suburban development, federal farmland preservation programs, improved crop yields, and farm retirements and closures have contributed to this loss of harvested crop land.
The Ag Revolution – Increasing Production with Less Land 1982-2017
Despite having fewer acres of harvested cropland within the state of Wisconsin, we are growing far more crops today than we were in 1982. In that year, Wisconsin corn (for grain) totaled 322 million bushels. Fast forward to 2017, Wisconsin corn (for grain) totaled nearly 520 million bushels. According to the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association’s website, “grain corn is used as feed for cows, pigs and poultry, as well as in the generation of ethanol, corn oil and corn starch and other non-food products.” Of all the grain corn produced in Wisconsin, about 37% of harvested grain corn goes to ethanol production.
As crop yields are expected to continue increasing and productivity of harvested land is improved, a new set of issues are presented. The depressed commodity prices of corn and soy exist today because yields have gone up considerably, leading to an oversaturated marketplace. The loss of important export markets also acts as a compounding factor upon the current commodity prices of corn and soybeans. These factors have created unfavorable conditions for conventional crop farmers in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, and crop producers are looking far and wide for new ways to generate revenue.
Farm Land: Energy Production & Conservation
Our research turned up another unexpected fact: many farmers today are already in the energy production business. About 37% of the corn already grown in Wisconsin is used for ethanol, a common form of biofuel. Another way to look at this is that more than one million acres of farmland are allocated each year, on average, for the production of corn for biofuel.
If just 11% of that land was allocated for solar PV, rather than ethanol production, we would generate enough power to supply 50% of our state’s electricity demand exclusively from solar. Incorporating solar onto the farm is simply another form of Wisconsin-made energy that farmers can provide our state.
Not only would the footprint of land to meet 50% of our electricity needs be small relative to other uses, it is a more efficient use of land as well. One acre of corn produces enough ethanol for an E15 vehicle to travel about 11,000 miles over the course of a year. One acre of solar PV provides enough energy equivalent to power 715,000 miles worth of battery electric vehicle travel.
It is also worth keeping in mind that federal taxpayers are already paying to take cropland out of production through the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program. Today in Wisconsin, nearly 100,000 acres are not being farmed in order to preserve the land, but also to reduce the total amount of crops produced in order to manage oversupply.
Farmland preservation programs require subsidy through tax dollars paid to the federal government. In contrast, utility-scale solar projects provide very similar land preservation and conservation benefits as the Conservation Reserve Program, but do not require taxpayer dollars. In fact, they inject money into the host communities through host lease payments, the county and municipal aid distribution formula and utility aid distribution formula found under Wisconsin’s Shared Revenue Formula, and increased local spending.
So How Much Land Would Solar Use in Wisconsin?
The current circumstances of conventional crop farming in Wisconsin has created favorable conditions for a new brand of farming; solar farming. In 2017, Wisconsin electricity sales totaled about 69 million megawatt-hours. In order to offset 50% of Wisconsin’s electricity demand, about 120,000 acres of land would be used to produce electricity from utility-scale solar PV. Assuming a land footprint of seven acres per megawatt (based on Invenergy’s Badger Hollow Solar project), Wisconsin would have about 17,100 MW of utility-scale solar deployed across the state generating clean, Wisconsin-made electricity.
The land required to supply half of our state’s electricity from solar PV is approximately the same amount that is currently preserved through the Conservation Reserve Program. Alternatively, less than half a percent of Wisconsin’s total land would be required to supply half of our state’s electricity. In short, the total land footprint of solar relative to other cropping regimes, preservation programs, and land taken out of production is strikingly small.
How much land does solar use compared to coal?
The last component of our analysis looked at the physical footprint of imported coal relative to solar PV. As of 2017, Wisconsin imported nearly 22 million short tons of coal, accounting for about 50% of the state’s energy mix. While we don’t see the extraction of this coal from Wyoming coal fields, the amount of coal mined from the earth to power our state is substantial.
If we assume that we’re mining coal six feet deep, then we would have to mine about 135,000 acres of coal over a 40-year period in order to produce 50% of Wisconsin electricity from coal we are using. A solar farm is estimated to last 40 years, so we must compare 40 years of operation and coal mined in order to see the apples-to-apples comparison of land use.
Thus, although the footprint of a coal plant in Wisconsin is smaller than solar farms, those coal plants have a very similar total land impact because of how much coal has to be mined to fuel them!
While the thought experiment of replacing coal storage with solar fields is not one-to-one, this point gives particular attention to the true physical footprint of our energy consumption. It is also important to keep in mind that this analysis does not include additional land used for the transportation of 22 million short tons of coal or land dedicated to coal ash disposal. Each year we send hundreds of millions of dollars out of our state to purchase and import the coal and natural gas needed to power the various coal-fired and natural gas power plants throughout Wisconsin. With Wisconsin-produced electricity from solar we are leaving carbon in the earth, keeping dollars in the state, and creating well-paying jobs.
Conclusion: Solar Farms Will Benefit Wisconsin
Wisconsin farmers have played a crucial role in providing food and energy to our communities for decades. Farmers now have a new opportunity to provide clean, renewable energy to the people of Wisconsin today and well into the future. Trends in conventional crop production have fostered ripe conditions for farmers to implement new ways to generate revenue. Crop yields are up, we are growing far more crops on less land, and commodity prices are low due to market conditions largely beyond farmers’ control.
With solar farms, we’ll be far more energy independent, and millions of dollars will be pumped into our rural communities. Solar-hosting farmers will have a new, reliable source of revenue for years to come.