Statement Regarding Alliant Energy’s Plan to add 1,000 megawatts of solar power

Statement Regarding Alliant Energy’s Plan to add 1,000 megawatts of solar power

Yesterday, Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin Power & Light utility company announced plans to add 1,000 megawatts of solar power by 2023 to provide more clean, renewable energy to their Wisconsin customers.

By our analysis, this commitment to solar power would equate to:

  • About 2.7% of Wisconsin’s entire electricity consumption
  • Enough electricity to provide the annual needs of about 250,000 Wisconsin residential electric customers
  • An estimated $5,000,000 annually in land leases paid to landowners who would lease their land to the solar projects
  • $4,000,000 annually provided across the local townships and county governments where the projects are located (if in Wisconsin), allocated through the state’s utility shared revenue formula
  • Create about 1,600 jobs during construction
  • Currently Wisconsin uses about 9,200,000 acres as farmland and has 34,700,000 total acres of land. The approximately 7,000 acres of solar would sit on just 0.076% of Wisconsin’s farmland and 0.020% of Wisconsin’s total land.
  • With appropriate grassland and pollinator-friendly practices, the land under these solar arrays can provide numerous benefits by regenerating soil, supporting pollinators like bees and butterflies, and removing carbon from the air and burying it in the soil.

Tyler Huebner, RENEW Wisconsin’s Executive Director, issued the following statement:  “This is another important announcement signifying solar power’s time has come in Wisconsin.  The costs for solar power have declined about 80% in the past decade, making solar a cost-effective source of electricity for Wisconsin customers.”

Huebner continued: “In addition to utility-scale solar development, RENEW Wisconsin and our members know that solar on homes, buildings, and in our communities also provide tremendous benefits and we look forward to working with Alliant and other utilities to ensure distributed generation and other renewable resources have a fair and equal shot, and receive fair and equal treatment, at providing their benefits as the state continues to shift towards more homegrown, healthy, and smart renewable energy.”

Alliant also announced they will build the first of their “community solar” projects, a program previously approved by the Public Service Commission, in Fond du Lac.

For context, Wisconsin currently has approximately 130 megawatts of solar.  In April 2019, approximately 500 megawatts of solar in Wisconsin were approved (450 megawatts were approved by the Public Service Commission and nearly 50 megawatts were approved by the Richland County Board).

2019 Ride with RENEW in the Fox Cities

2019 Ride with RENEW in the Fox Cities

On Saturday, September 14th, our 7th Annual “Ride with RENEW” bike ride, held in the Fox Cities this year, was a huge success!

We started the morning at Prairie Hill Park in Grand Chute with 40 determined bike riders and 12 wonderful young ladies from the Girl Scouts of the Northwest Great Lakes!  The State Representative for the area, Amanda Stuck, welcomed our riders by talking about the importance of energy, and how easy it has become to take advantage of clean energy sources.

Our bike riders and Girl Scouts then set out for the Bubolz Nature Center where we explored their solar panels and microgrid, built and operated by Faith Technologies, who walked us through this one-of-a-kind facility in Wisconsin. The microgrid includes a lithium battery, a hydrogen fuel cell, and a generator, and the facility runs off the solar panels and renewable storage most of the time.

Next we biked 10 miles to Evergreen Credit Union which has become a regional leader in sustainability. With solar panels covering its roof, Roni Kasperek of Evergreen described the credit union’s migration to becoming a clean energy leader and how sustainability is a core value of the organization.

We turned Schildt Park into a clean energy mecca at lunch!  Featuring pizza from Glass Nickel Pizza, we were fortunate to have the Ripon Lego League join us as they collected data from our bike riders to help them with their Lego challenge of designing a sustainable community!  Our riders engaged in the Lego League’s survey, created to help the kids better understand bikers’ safety needs and how a city could better support bicycling.  The Lego League kids did a great job helping to serve lunch and engage with our bikers!

In addition, we had an electric vehicle exposition featuring 9 vehicles from 5 car brands that drive with electricity, instead of gasoline. This technology is advancing and many new types of affordable electric vehicles are coming out soon.  We loved showing these cars off to our bike riders and a few members of the public, and the vehicle owners loved chatting about how much they enjoy driving electric.

After lunch we saw small wind turbines at Essity (formerly SCA Tissue) right along the bike path.  These 4 turbines were designed and installed by a former Wisconsin company called Renewegy (which is unfortunately no longer in business).  Next we headed to Heckrodt Wetland Reserve in Menasha where we learned about their tremendous efforts to preserve this part of the state and how solar power is a sustainable part of their growth.

We next saw an innovative solar carport at the Petit and Dommershausen law offices in downtown Menasha, where were treated to a much-needed snack.  Then we biked to RiverHeath, which is a new development in Appleton right along the Fox River.  Mike Barnett of HGA described an innovative use of geothermal energy, designed by HGA and installed by G.O. Loop, that uses the temperature of the water to provide heating and cooling to the new buildings in the RiverHeath complex.

Last, but certainly not least, we biked to the first power plant in Wisconsin that delivered electricity to a customer. We were greeted by “Thomas Edison,” a generous measure provided by the Appleton Historical Society, who helped explain the origins of the Vulcan Street Hydropower Plant which was put into service in 1882 and provided electricity for lights at paper manufacturing plants as well as one home.

The actual Vulcan plant burned down in 1889.  The Appleton Historical Society, as well as Ford Motor Company, contributed many hours and, in Ford’s case, equipment, to allow this replica of the original hydropower plant in Wisconsin to stand and to give visitors like us the opportunity to learn about Wisconsin’s energy history and see it in action.

Finally, we arrived back at Prairie Hill Park, where we enjoyed beer from Central Waters based in Amherst and celebrated a great event with our riders!  The weather was outstanding, and we can’t wait to plan next year’s Ride with RENEW.

Four of RENEW staff members joined Board member Jim Funk of Energize LLC as he showed off one of Wisconsin’s earliest examples of “bi-facial” solar panels – panels that can receive light from both sides of the panel to create electricity.  This installation at a carport has served as a beautiful visual example of solar energy in the Fox Cities since 2010.  For example, check out the very cool design when our staff member Jim Boullion’s car was parked underneath the panels.

Check out our Facebook photo album to see more images of the ride!

Thank you again to all of our sponsors, shown below, all the bike riders, the Girl Scouts, Lego League, and everyone who donated to support our riders and helped us raise over $17,000 to continue our education, advocacy, and collaboration to advance renewable energy in Wisconsin!

2019 RIDE WITH RENEW SPONSORS

Juda Students Get Hands-On Lesson in Solar Power

Juda Students Get Hands-On Lesson in Solar Power

Construction of Juda School District’s new solar array began on Tuesday, September 17th and Juda High School students got a first-hand look at the solar installation process. Ryan Harkins of Synergy Renewables, designed the 4-kilowatt solar array that will help the school offset its electricity consumption and reduce its utility bills.

Sixteen students, mostly seniors from Juda’s Calculus and Engineering classes participated in the installation process.

“Helping put solar panels on our school really shows what our Engineering class can accomplish,” said Juda student Tristan Geisking.

Harkins showed the students how to install the panels’ racking and connection devices, and the students also learned how solar energy is produced.

“Developing a solar project from the planning stages to the installation is an experience the students will remember for years to come,” said Harkins. “The students did a fantastic job.”

In 2012, the Juda School District set a goal of generating 10% of their electricity from renewable energy. The district had 36 solar panels installed in 2014 to offset its electric use. The new solar installation adds 12 more panels to the school’s rooftop and the two installations combined offset nearly 10% of the school’s electricity.

To help with costs, Juda received grants from RENEW Wisconsin’s Solar for Good program and the Public Service Commission’s Office of Energy Innovation. These grants helped fund the solar array, and a host of other energy efficiency measures at the school including building envelope improvements, HVAC optimization, and 100% LED lighting.

“Initially, the proposed payback to the school district would take 6 years. Now, thanks to the Energy Innovation Grant, the school is already realizing the savings,” stated Mario Millonzi, President of Upper 90 Energy and contractor on the project.

Juda is now saving over $30,000 per year in utility costs, and over $6,000 in yearly maintenance costs. The school, however, sees the cost-savings as only one part of the project’s benefits.

“At Juda, we issue the challenge to the students to make the school, the community, and the world better,” said Juda Math and Engineering Instructor, Scott Anderson. “This project accomplishes all three.”

Students at Juda were key to the success of the projects. In addition to helping with the installation, they helped write grants and worked with Upper 90 on the energy saving details.

“Creating students who are aware of their role as stewards of our world may be the single most important thing I teach,” added Anderson. “Once they get started, it’s great to see what they can accomplish.”

 

Governor Evers Delivers a Clean Energy Vision for Wisconsin

Governor Evers Delivers a Clean Energy Vision for Wisconsin

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.

Fox Cities Gear up for  RENEW Wisconsin Bicycle Tour

Fox Cities Gear up for RENEW Wisconsin Bicycle Tour

Ride with RENEW to highlight area renewable energy projects.

On Saturday, September 14th, RENEW Wisconsin will host its 7th annual “Ride with RENEW” bicycle tour of renewable energy projects in Appleton, Grand Chute, Neenah, Menasha, and Fox Crossing, WI.  All event proceeds support RENEW Wisconsin’s ongoing work to advance renewable energy in Wisconsin.

Riders will travel approximately 30 miles on paved roads and bike paths to visit solar, geothermal, wind, and hydropower energy generation facilities in the area. Riders can also participate in an electric vehicle “ride and drive” event as part of National Drive Electric Week.

Riders will depart from Prairie Hill Park at 9 AM. The total tour time will be approximately 7 hours (including stops at renewable energy sites) and actual riding time will be approximately 3 hours. Those not able or wanting to bike the ride can register as a non-biker and can use their own vehicles to transport themselves to the various tour stops.

Participants will get an inside look at some of the area’s leading renewable energy projects and will enjoy breakfast, lunch, and beverages along the way. They will visit with installers and workers who are advancing renewable energy every day, and hear from customers about why clean energy works for their businesses and communities.

The day’s tour will include stops at the following clean energy facilities:

  • Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve – The Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve is a 700-acre facility used for recreation, conservation, and education. In July 2018, the nature preserve unveiled its new clean energy microgrid composed of solar panels, battery system, and software system.
  • Evergreen Credit Union – With a mission to be the most environmentally responsible credit union in the nation, Evergreen Credit Union installed a solar array at their Appleton facility. The solar array produces enough electricity to satisfy 85% of the credit union’s annual electricity demand.
  • Electric Vehicle Ride and Drive at Schildt Park (Neenah) – As part of National Drive Electric Week, join RENEW Wisconsin and many Fox Valley sustainable businesses to learn about and test drive electric vehicles and electric bicycles. The event will overlap with Ride with RENEW’s lunch hour.
  • Essity Wind Turbines – Essity is a global company that manufactures hygiene and health products. In 2007, Essity installed a 20 kW solar PV system, and in 2010, Essity installed four wind turbines that generate 80 kW of energy.
  • Heckrodt Nature Preserve – Heckrodt Wetland Reserve, a  Solar for Good grant recipient, is a 76-acre urban nature reserve. In 2018, Heckrodt installed a 19.6 kilowatt solar panel system to offset 5,000 pounds of CO2 emissions.
  • Petit & Dommershausen, SC Law Offices – The Petit & Dommershausen Law Offices have embraced solar energy at their Menasha and Oshkosh locations. After installing a 20.7 kW solar carport array at their Menasha location in the fall of 2017, Petit & Dommershausen is offsetting approximately 81% of their Menasha office’s annual electricity usage.
  • RiverHeath – RiverHeath Community is a vibrant apartment and retail area that was redeveloped from an urban brownfield site on the Fox River. Buildings utilize an innovative river based geothermal heating and cooling system that minimizes the site’s energy use and carbon intensity while reducing first costs compared to a conventional ground source geothermal system.
  • Vulcan Street Plant – The Vulcan Street Hydroelectric Central Station, the world’s first Edison hydroelectric central station, began operation in 1882 in Appleton. The output of the original generator was about 12.5 kilowatts. In 1891, the plant burned down, and a replica of the plant was later built on South Oneida Street.
  • Schmidt Brothers Solar Canopy (add-on stop for non-bikers) – This 20kW Bi-Facial Solar Cantilevered Parking Canopy benefits from added generation from reflection below when snow covers the lot and when white or other light-colored vehicles park beneath it. The cantilevered design was specifically implemented to provide open and clear access to all parking spaces.
  • The ride will conclude at Prairie Hill Park for refreshments at around 4:00 p.m.

Registration for the ride is open through September 14th. The cost is $45 for members of RENEW Wisconsin, $55 for non-members, and $75 to both register for the ride and become a member of the organization for one year.  All donations to RENEW Wisconsin for this charity bike ride are matched up to $15,000 by generous donors John & Mary Frantz of Madison!

Individuals and businesses can donate to RENEW Wisconsin or in support of a rider, donate to RENEW to contribute towards a $15,000 matching donation, or volunteer on ride day.

“We are very excited to tour some of the Fox Cities’ great renewable energy projects on Saturday, September 14th,” said Tyler Huebner, Executive Director of RENEW Wisconsin. “This tour allows us to showcase a variety of ways to produce homegrown, clean energy right here in Wisconsin and for our team to engage with renewable energy advocates in the Appleton area. We’ll be learning about wind, solar, geothermal, and a hydropower plant that is part of renewable energy history as being the first electric production in Wisconsin. This is a really fun event where you can meet great people, help a good cause, and learn together about clean energy in Wisconsin.”


Sponsors of the Event include Eland Electric, Energize LLC, HGA, North Wind Renewable Energy Cooperative, Appleton Solar, Arch Electric, Clean Fuel Partners, G.O. Loop, Petit & Dommershausen, SC Law Offices, RiverHeath, Velocity, Wegner CPAs, 4imprint, Central Waters Brewing Company, Chain Reaction Cyclery, Glass Nickel Pizza Co., and Sturdy Bag Designs.

Solar. Community. Future.

Solar. Community. Future.

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.