Digestion of manure is, on paper, a relatively simple process. Similar to how a cow digests food, digesters further break down manure, capture methane, purify the gas and then convert it to pipeline-grade renewable natural gas (RNG).
Investors of all backgrounds have been touring dairy farms in the U.S. about RNG projects. I’ve heard stories with comments being made such as, “all your nutrient challenges will be gone,” to “we’ll pay you big money for your manure,” to “let’s be in partnership in this project.”
As a former owner of digester facilities, I can tell you that each project is a unicorn. How you bed your cows, frequency, method of manure spreading, and other aspects are just the tip of the iceberg of how farm practices impact the financial outcome of RNG projects.
Incorrect assumptions of owners/investors:
The stuff coming out the back end is worth money
Operations and management can be done with a few people
This is a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow
Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these points.
The stuff coming out the back end is worth money.
The effluent does have nutrient value, and it is carbon-based. If separated, the liquid is easy enough to apply. The solids are commonly used as animal bedding, the base for compost, or spread on fields. Additional cost factors come in with the solid not being an easy form to spread on fields. Also, a watershed may require the removal of solids, which can be an added cost for transportation and negatively impact the project’s carbon intensity (CI) score.
Operations and management can be done with a few people
These facilities require people with specific knowledge. At first glance, the facilities are comprised of pipes, pumps, and poop. But there are by-products generated from manure –hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Those two gasses deliver quite a punch to the equipment.
It is predictable
The aforementioned hydrogen sulfide and ammonia will humble even the best maintenance plan. Additionally, if manure is piped underground, it will require regular jetting due to buildup.
This is a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
RNG projects can be attractive financially, thanks to the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) in California and Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) at the federal level. Many factors can influence the actual income, primarily based on the CI score of a project, as mentioned earlier with farming practices and trucking costs. Historically, costs for maintenance have been underestimated. Equipment will break, and spare parts will be needed to keep projects running smoothly. Remember, if you’re not producing gas, you’re not making money.
Most large farming operations have already or are actively considering a biogas facility. The larger the number of cows, the better a project will pencil out. There are still plenty of opportunities for medium to smaller size farms to create a cluster project. These will depend on proximity to a pipeline.
Being mindful of these common misconceptions will put your team on the right track to a successful project. A legislative effort is underway for Wisconsin farm operations to increase access to the pipeline, therefore making projects more accessible. Click here to learn more about this.
Beneficial electrification discussions often revolve around transportation electrification, specifically how electrifying vehicles can reduce emissions and offer cost savings for consumers. However, an under-discussed and equally important part of beneficial electrification is the building sector. At 24% direct emissions, the building sector comprises the largest end-use emissions in Wisconsin. Read further to learn about Susan Millar’s journey towards electrifying her home, including her installation of an air-source heat pump for greater heating and cooling energy efficiency.
The companies, technologies, and programs endorsed in this blog are not necessarily recommended or endorsed by RENEW Wisconsin. The following information and personal experience is illustrative of the process to electrify a residential property in Wisconsin.
Are you wondering how to convert an older single-family home with a forced hot-air heating system, a gas water heater, and a gas stovetop from gas and electric to electric-only? I have done that with a 90-year old house on the near west side of Madison. And because it took a fair amount of time, I am sharing the process I used. Before describing this process, I provide important context.
Air source heat pumps (ASHPs) are the energy-efficient electric-powered alternative to gas heating systems. ASHPs both heat and cool your house (no separate AC device needed). They have a high coefficient of performance, so while they use electricity, the amount is much less than, say, what an electric space heater or traditional AC unit uses. See, for example, this video description of ASHPs.
Air source water heaters (also called “hybrid” water heaters) work the same way as ASHPs except they exchange air with your basement instead of the air outside. They are far more efficient than traditional electric water heaters.
Our state’s Focus on Energy program provides rebates for air-source air and water handling systems. The installers handle this process. (I am not sure of the size of these rebates.)
MG&E’s monthly (gas) service charge is $22. If you stop your gas service and start it again, they will bill you for monthly service charges for up to 12 months prior to the time you start again. That is, you cannot stop your gas service except for, say, the month of January without paying for up to 12 months of service.
If you have an EV and are willing to charge it and also run your dishwasher, etc during MG&E’s low-rate (off-peak) period (from 9 pm to 10 am on weekdays, and during weekends and holidays), you can substantially reduce your electricity bill. To do this, call MG&E and ask them to add you to their ‘Time Of Use’ program.
Yes, you have to lay out money ahead of time to transition from gas, and I am aware that many people cannot do this. The financial payoff comes over time. For example, while paying both gas and electric service charges, and charging my EV at home, my MG&E bill this summer was between $20 -30 per month. This is largely due to having rooftop solar and Time Of Use electricity rates. While my utility bills will be higher this winter, they will be reduced by the $22 monthly gas service charge and will be substantially less than prior winters. For me, another major advantage is that I am emitting essentially no carbon dioxide to run my home and car.
Steps for Transitioning to All-Electric (used by an early adopter)
Get an energy efficiency analysis. This is very important because if you switch from a furnace powered by an unlimited amount of gas to an ASHP, it’s important that your house holds its temperature (in winter or summer) as effectively as possible. I used a local energy efficiency consultant. He did a superb job.
Improve your insulation. If your energy efficiency analysis indicates that your house needs insulation, then arrange to get it. I used a small local company that treated my home as if it was their own. I felt the difference immediately, even in summer.
Replace your gas stovetop (both to get off of gas and because much new research indicates respiratory health problems are caused by gas stovetops). As I have a unit with an electric oven and gas stove, I purchased two Cuisinart’s Double Induction Cooktops (not expensive), which I placed over the gas burner area on my stove and just plugged in. (Induction stovetops work great, and are much easier to keep clean.)
While doing steps 1 & 2, get contracts with the HVAC and plumbing company you will use. I started with the local HVAC company that I was used to. They proposed an ASHP system that would heat my house to +14F degrees and required that I retain my gas furnace for backup in the winter. As I want to eliminate the year-round monthly gas service charge, I turned them down. I tried 3 other local companies. Same response. I looked wider and found a company located near Milwaukee. In light of the energy efficiency and size of my house, they proposed to replace my gas furnace and AC units with a Mitsubishi P system that will efficiently heat my house to -14F, and then shift to an electric element (low efficiency) backup system for super cold snaps. Their price? Same as the local HVAC folks who proposed installing a +14F system with gas back-up. I accepted Midwest’s proposal. Moreover, they agreed to install my (still effective and efficient) gas and AC units in the home of a friend who has very inefficient HVAC systems – so the embedded carbon in those devices is not immediately trashed. (FYI, I informed the local HVAC companies of my decision – they lost my business to a more cutting-edge, non-local competitor.)
Meanwhile, after checking different local plumbers, most of whom do not install hybrid water heaters, I found a small local plumbing company that proposed to install one of these at a very decent price. I happily accepted his bid.
Both the HVAC and plumbing companies I signed with encountered installation delays because ASAP and hybrid water heater manufacturers are having sourcing issues. These problems are either due to Covid shipping issues or because the manufacturers are sending their stock to states that are ahead of us on installing these systems. Demand pushes the market.
Both the hybrid water heater and the ASHP have easy controls and work superbly. For the mid-October to mid-November billing period, the first during which I used electricity to heat water, heat the house, and charge my EV, I used 664 kWh. My MG&E bill was $54. In round numbers, they charged me $42 for connection and distribution services, $15 for contributions to their Shared Solar, Green Power, and Low-Income Assistance programs, and $37 for electricity used at variable rates. (I have “Time of Use.” Most of my use was at the very lowest rate.) They credited me $39 for “net energy exported at variable rates” (kWhs from my solar panels), and $2 for “fuel cost.” All that suggests that I paid $-2 for electricity provided by MG&E.
If you would like cost or contact information for the energy efficiency, insulation, HVAC, plumbing, and electrician contractors I used, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For decades, utility investments in power plants and transmission lines have been predicated on the concept of economies of scale. The theory behind it is beguilingly simple: the larger the installation sought by an electric utility, the lower the unit cost of the investment, which utility planners and regulators regard as a measure of economic efficiency. When loads are growing, the “bigger is better” paradigm is often an economically rational fit for electric utilities seeking to recover large-scale capital investments in fossil generation over the broadest possible cohort of current and future customers.
But solar power, the default resource option for electric providers today, is a somewhat different animal due to its scalability. Yes, economies of scale can certainly reduce the unit price of solar generating capacity, but other on-the-ground factors can influence the economics of this resource. These factors include but are not limited to the cost of acquiring site control of the host properties and obtaining all the necessary approvals to construct the project. Interconnection costs can be high as well, especially for larger projects requiring additional land and approvals to supply power to the grid.
These thoughts came to mind after visiting two smaller solar farms that started producing power this year. The first project, called Strobus Solar, was developed by OneEnergy Renewables and serves Jackson Electric Cooperative. The second installation, O’Brien Solar Fields, was one of the stops in this September’s Ride with RENEW bicycle tour. Developed by EDF Renewables and owned by Madison Gas and Electric (MGE), this 20 MW solar farm in Fitchburg supplies electricity to seven MGE customers under long-term contracts.
At a Glance Solar For the Distribution Grid – 2021
County of location
Capacity (in MWac)
Madison Gas + Electric
Madison Gas + Electric
Northern Family Farms
O’Brien Brothers Farm
Governor Evers and the Project Developer, Eric Udelhofen, from OneEnergy Renewables at the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for the Strobus Solar project.
Strobus – A Mastodon Solar project
Occupying a mere 12 acres, Strobus Solar is located about six miles north of Black River Falls and is tucked into a compact parcel framed by evergreen trees and U.S. Highway 12. On a cloudy September day, more than 50 people attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Strobus project, one of eight solar farms in southeast Minnesota and west-central Wisconsin that make up OneEnergy’s Mastodon Solar portfolio. With a combined 17 megawatts (MW) of AC-rated capacity, all eight Mastodon solar farms are located in the territory served by rural electric cooperatives.
As noted on OneEnergy’s website, “the electricity generated by each project will be purchased by the local participating electric cooperative, resulting in savings on energy supply and increased resiliency. These savings will be passed onto the cooperative’s members. The available Renewable Energy Credits will then be sold separately to visionary buyers committed to ensuring their renewable energy procurement dollars are devoted to new projects that serve local communities.”
Of the four Mastodon projects located in Wisconsin, Strobus is the second to be energized this year, following Blue Prairie, a 2.5 MW installation southwest of Black River Falls. The other two, Stromland and Shamrock, should be operating before the end of this year. Plymouth-based Arch Electric is the general contractor for all four Wisconsin projects.
Governor Evers spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with representatives of Jackson Electric Cooperative, Arch Electric, and Northern Family Farms, the participating landowner. Based in nearby Merillan, Northern is Wisconsin’s largest Christmas tree grower, operating on more than 7,000 acres. After the prepared remarks, OneEnergy and Arch opened the gates to let Governor Evers and other guests circulate through the project and ask questions.
On one corner of the Strobus parcel is the substation that feeds the solar-generated electricity directly into the wires overhead. Though the equipment onsite is brand-new, low-growing grassy vegetation has already been established, covering the entire project footprint. After three years, the mix of deep-rooted, primarily native plants will provide a healthy habitat for birds, insects, and other species. At nearby Blue Prairie, sheep are already grazing around and under the 7,000 panels installed there.
Strobus is expected to generate about 3,000 megawatt-hours of electricity a year. But the Renewable Energy Credits associated with that output will not flow to Jackson Electric. They will instead be sold to Native, a Public Benefits Corporation, through its New Renewables Portfolio.
According to Native’s website, the purpose of the Portfolio “is to enable Renewable Energy Credit (REC) buyers to play a causal role in actualizing new renewable energy projects. Native has committed to a 10-year renewables purchase agreement with Strobus, LLC on behalf of Portfolio investors. Without this type of long-term REC purchasing agreement, this project would not be economically viable.”
O’Brien Solar Fields in the city of Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
O’Brien Solar – Clean Energy Produced Offsite for Larger Customers
Occupying 130 acres along the edge of urban Fitchburg, O’Brien Solar Fields is as large as a distributed solar project gets. However, while every kilowatt-hour produced at O’Brien flows directly into Madison Gas and Electric’s distribution grid, only seven customers see the impact of this project on their utility bills. Those customers are the State of Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin-Madison, City of Fitchburg, Promega, Placon, Tribe 9 Foods, and Willy St. Co-op.
Energized this summer, O’Brien Solar is the newest Renewable Energy Rider (RER) project serving MGE customers. Several years ago, MGE received approval from the Public Service Commission (PSC) to build solar farms to serve individual customers, including those with multiple facilities, through its RER program. Unique to MGE, this service allows customers to be served by one larger solar farm instead of building numerous solar systems to supply each of their facilities.
A voluntary program, MGE’s RER program does not affect base electric rates. Participating customers fully absorb the cost of MGE’s investment in the solar arrays, and these costs are spread over 30 years. The electricity generated at O’Brien offsets grid power that would otherwise flow to these customers at specified prices throughout the contract term. Should standard electric rates rise faster than the agreed-upon pricing for O’Brien’s electricity, the savings will flow directly to the participating customers.
This unique model combines elements of both behind-the-meter generation and community solar power. But in order to entice customers to access brand-new yet low-cost sources of power, the project owner must design and develop projects that are competitive with the utility’s own avoided cost of power.
The question arises, what did MGE do to keep O’Brien’s development costs in line with its investments in larger solar projects and make it an affordable option for customers?
First, the project occupies only one parcel of land, the former Stoner Prairie Dairy owned and operated by the O’Brien brothers over several generations. Though the parcel is adjacent to a rapidly growing neighborhood, the project’s configuration allows the O’Brien family to maintain its most profitable farming operations as well as live in their long-time residence. Negotiating with only one landowner gives a developer more room in tailoring the project to avoid potentially expensive workarounds.
Second, from an electrical perspective, the project is divided into three zones, each with a separate interconnection to MGE’s feeder lines. By spreading out the project’s output in this fashion, MGE could forgo the more significant expense of running a large tie-in line to the closest substation.
Third, much like a 30-year residential mortgage, the RER contract is a powerful tool for breaking down a significant capital outlay into a manageable expense for the customer. Just as utilities rely on extended depreciation schedules to help them digest the costs of building central station power plants, the RER service provides a similar benefit to participating customers.
In the end, the all-in cost of O’Brien Solar Fields amounted to $29.5 million, which, on a unit basis, comes to $1,475 per kilowatt (kW). To put that number in perspective, the unit price of six larger solar farms totaling 414 MW that Alliant Energy proposes to acquire is $1,449 per kW. In fact, O’Brien’s unit cost is within 10% of the estimated cost of acquiring a 20 MW share of a project ten times as large.
Moreover, it took only three years for EDF Renewables, O’Brien’s original developer, and MGE to advance this power plant from the concept stage to fruition, a relatively speedy turnaround compared with larger solar installations.
Conclusion: The Policy Case for Smaller Solar Farms
Indeed, small solar farms can deliver affordable electricity at a reasonable price by avoiding the increased complexities and additional permitting hurdles associated with larger solar farms that tie into the transmission system. Moreover, while larger solar farms make a great deal of sense in areas rich in transmission infrastructure, relying solely on those locations would exclude much of Wisconsin from being able to host solar power.
There are many parcels of land throughout Wisconsin that have the requisite attributes for hosting projects on the scale of Strobus and O’Brien. In addition, projects of that size are ideal vehicles for community solar offerings, designed to deliver zero-carbon electricity to subscribing customers who cannot access solar power at their residence or business.
Over time, with increases in system power costs looking very likely, the state should explore and adopt policies to promote smaller solar farms within its boundaries. As exemplified by the Strobus and O’Brien projects, development on that scale can yield faster results at comparable costs while potentially providing a reliable revenue stream to the many thousands of landowners who don’t live near high-capacity transmission lines and substations.
Wisconsin is in the beginning stages of an energy revolution. With a more forward-looking policy framework, Wisconsin could emerge as a national leader in solar power. Embracing distribution-level solar solutions now will help more Wisconsinites participate in the benefits of these projects and give every city, town, and village a solar project to call their own. Wisconsin’s population is distributed throughout the state–our renewable energy portfolio should be as well.
On October 13, RENEW Wisconsin and Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum (WCEF) hosted their first-ever Renewable Energy Day at the Capitol in Madison. The event included issue briefings by industry experts on a variety of legislation that has been introduced this year related to the solar and electric vehicle industries. Attendees then went to the State Capitol to speak with their legislators to gain support for these important issues.
During a welcome reception, the evening before the Day at the Capitol, RENEW and WCEF held a panel discussion “Energy in Transition: Policy and Politics.”
From right to left were moderator, Scott Coenen (WCEF), Dan Ebert (former PSC Chairman), Senator Rob Cowles, Larry Ward (Conservative Energy Network), and Jim Boullion (RENEW Wisconsin).
The panel discussed the current uncertainty in world energy markets and the impact that energy shortages and spiking prices will have on the world. There was consensus from the conversation that panelists believe renewables can help stabilize much of this energy uncertainty, but that the industry needs to be realistic about its role in a world where supply is not meeting demand.Businesses, households, and communities in Wisconsin should be empowered to invest in their own energy generation.
Before attendees went to the Capitol to meet with their legislators, there was an issue briefing with a panel of industry experts moderated by Jim Boullion, Director of Government Affairs for RENEW Wisconsin. The panelists explained in detail what legislative proposals were currently before the legislature, how they will impact renewable energy in Wisconsin, and what arguments are being made on both sides of the issue.
Issue briefing panelists, Left to right: Jason Mugnaini (Chief of Staff, State Senator Rob Cowles), James Fenley (SJL Government Affairs & Communications), Peter Lund (Financial Structuring Associate, Nautilus Solar Energy), and Amy Heart (Senior Director, Public Policy, Sunrun).
The first panel discussed two solar-related issues:
Expanded Development of Community Solar – (SB 490 / AB 527– Sen. Stroebel and Rep. Ramthun)This bill would authorize the development of non-utility owned community solar projects and provide access to the economic and environmental benefits of solar for those who can’t afford the full cost of a system, live in multi-family housing, or own property that is not suitable for solar.
3rd Party Financing/Leasing– (LRB 1550/1 Sen. Cowles and Rep. Cabral-Guevara) This legislation would clarify that 3rd party financing/leasing of renewable energy equipment is legal in Wisconsin, providing affordable financing options for people, businesses, municipalities, or not-for-profit entities who don’t have the resources to pay for solar on their own property.
Likewise, Justin Ackley, Public Policy Manager at ChargePoint, spoke to the business clarity and consumer transparency that AB 588 / SB 573 (Sen. Cowles and Rep. VanderMeer)would provide, as it would allow non-utility-owned charging stations to charge by the kWh. Similar to a gas pump, where the price per gallon is displayed, kWh charging tells electric owners how much energy they’re paying for, regardless of how long it takes to charge their vehicle. The panel pointed out that while the main goal of this legislation is good, another section of it would create problems by prohibiting charging a fee if any of the electricity going through the EV charger comes from a non-utility source such as a solar+storage system.
Emerging technology allows EV chargers to be installed in areas, especially rural areas, that have inadequate grid infrastructure and can help limit costly spikes in energy “demand charges” for charging station owners. EnTech, a division of Faith Technologies based in Menasha, Wisconsin brought one of their portable solar+storage units to Capitol Square to demonstrate how the technology works and how flexible it can be. A similar system was set up at Bergstrom Ford in Neenah to help reduce the energy bills at their dealership. John Bergstrom, the owner of the dealership, told the story of why he worked with Faith Technologies to install the system in this podcast.
The panel closed the session by discussing two other bills recently introduced by Sen. Rob Cowles:
$10 million in VW Settlement Funds forEV Charging Station Grants – (LRB-0254/1 Sen. Cowles and Rep. VanderMeer) Grants from these funds would be used to install electric vehicle charging stations at key locations throughout Wisconsin.
Energy Storage Sales Tax Exemption – (LRB-1513/1) – Sen. Cowles and Rep. Duchow) This legislation would clarify that battery storage devices installed as part of a renewable energy system should be included in the sales tax exemption that already exists for renewable energy system equipment.
The 75 registered attendees made an impact by taking time out of their busy lives and getting involved in the political process. None of these issues will be easy to pass. In fact, most of them face significant opposition from powerful forces. But working together and building coalitions with pro-renewable energy friends helps get important legislation like this adopted.
If you would like to learn what you can do to help as well, contact Jim Boullion, Director of Government Relations at email@example.com.
In the very first edition of the RENEW Wisconsin Electric Vehicles Blog, I shared my transportation story. That was over a year ago, and now we are approaching a new decade, which will be sure to bring just as much change as the last. Here’s a quick rundown of what I see as the biggest transportation changes over the past 10 years, what’s coming next, and how I plan to clean up my own transportation use in 2020.
10 years of transportation
In 2010, 3 days after my 16th birthday I got my driver’s license, kickstarting my experience with personal transportation.
In 2015, I purchased a red (Go Badgers!) 2010 Ford Escape. I didn’t even think about buying an electric car. Sometimes, I opted to drive my car because it was warm and easy, despite having the option to reduce my emissions by walking, taking the bus, driving my moped, or biking.
Then, in July of 2018, I started working at RENEW. I was immersed in clean energy – and quickly realized that my transportation choices didn’t align with my values.
I spent a year learning as much as I could, evaluating my lifestyle, and crunching the numbers on an EV purchase. I bought a Tesla Model 3 and moved to an apartment with solar on the roof. My husband and I are an all-electric, one car household. I call a rideshare when I need it – and in Madison, I can call an all-electric rideshare with Green Cab.
This is not the transportation future I imagined when I started my transportation story in 2010. I have more options, and produce fewer emissions, than I could have imagined 10 years ago. Madison is a walkable city that has an all-electric cab company, BCycle electric bikeshares, beautiful bike paths, and an extensive bus system that is being renovated and electrified. I can (and do!) take advantage of these options to live my clean energy values more fully.
A clean energy resolution
As I reflected on my personal transportation choices this decade, I decided to make Clean Energy Resolutions for 2020:
Buy carbon offsets for my air travel.
Try not to rideshare alone. I will bus when possible and call a Green Cab when I need to, reducing my solo rideshare trips (it’s not really “sharing” when I’m the only one in the car that needs to go there).
How has your personal transportation evolved over the decade? What would your Clean Energy Resolutions be?
Here are a few options to dip your toe into a clean energy transition this year:
Pledge to take the bus once a week in January
Instead of a “swear jar” have a “lights jar” at home – anyone caught leaving a light on when they’re not in the room owes the jar $1
Get a solar site assessment – at home or your work – to see if solar is right for you. See our list of trusted installers here
What will next decade hold?
This decade saw a lot of change in the way people get around. Rideshares like Uber and Lyft became common, electric scooters took over sidewalks nationwide, and electric vehicle sales tipped over 1 million in the U.S.
I expect that next decade it will be even easier to get around with enhanced micromobility options, cleaner buses with more bus routes, and more electric vehicle models than ever. These transitions are happening nationwide and Wisconsin is no exception. In addition to Madison, La Crosse, Milwaukee, and Racine all have electric buses ordered. Madison is working toward bus rapid transit, which will make commuting faster, cleaner, and more equitable for thousands of Wisconsinites. Micromobility is happening everywhere too – the founder of Bird Rides, one of the big scooter-sharing companies, grew up in Appleton! And, there are bikeshares in cities as small as Wisconsin Rapids and as large as Milwaukee. Together, these options will make it easier to get where you need to go, with fewer emissions.
For passenger vehicles, expect 200 different EV models to be available by 2025, giving us more size, shape, price, and brand options in the electric vehicle market. To add to it, I am really excited to see how the transition to autonomous vehicles will play out, especially as we transition to electric and shared mobility at the same time.
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.