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).
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.
Today the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin approved two long-term supply contracts between Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) and two of its customers who wish to receive more electricity from renewable energy.
With these approvals in hand, the City of Middleton and the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District become the first customers in Wisconsin to contract with their local utility to receive emission-free electricity from an offsite solar plant.
Together, these customers have committed to receive the output from 1.5 megawatts (MW) of solar power that MGE will build on property owned by the City of Middleton near its municipal airport. The school district’s commitment amounts to 1 MW, while the city’s commitment is for 500 kilowatts. The solar project itself will total 5 MW, with the other 3.5 MW approved earlier this summer as an expansion of MGE’s Shared Solar program.
Under MGE’s Renewable Energy Rider service, larger customers with multiple facilities, such as local governments, school districts, and companies, can source some of the electricity they use from a nearby dedicated solar plant. This voluntary service enables customers to drive the expansion of renewable power and directly benefit from the additional solar capacity beyond the amount of solar power that their own buildings could hold.
After MGE became the first Wisconsin utility to gain approval in 2017 to create their 25 MW program, We Energies and Alliant Energy sought and received approval for 150 MW each in similar programs for customers they serve.
“Today’s approval of these innovative contracts between MGE, City of Middleton, and Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District moves Wisconsin forward to more homegrown, healthy, and smart renewable energy. This approval blazes a path that state government, local governments, and companies all across Wisconsin can follow to voluntarily increase their renewable energy usage in a cost-effective manner,” said RENEW Executive Director Tyler Huebner.
“These 1.5 megawatts of solar power should be just the beginning as MGE, We Energies, and Alliant Energy have a combined authority to subscribe up to approximately 325 megawatts of renewable energy under their programs.”
Early Support from RENEW
RENEW supported the creation of MGE’s program in our 2017 Public Comments, which included this statement: “There is significant and growing corporate interest in increasing consumption of renewable energy. In addition, there is growing interest among institutional customers such as municipalities, school districts, and technical colleges to access renewable energy, and along with corporate customers, these entities tend to view their utility as their trusted long-term partner on energy. As these customers weigh their options for accessing renewable energy, we believe it is important that our regulated utilities are granted flexibility to pursue tariffs and contracts to meet those needs.”
MGE serves four municipalities–Middleton, Madison, Monona and Fitchburg–that have recently adopted 100% renewable energy goals. The approved contracts clear a path for these communities and other entities with ambitious clean energy goals to access more solar power under this model.
Shared Solar Expansion Underway
The solar facility to be built will be a total of 5 megawatts, of which 3.5 megawatts will be dedicated to MGE’s Shared Solar program. Earlier this summer, MGE received approval from the PSC to revise and expand its shared solar service. MGE now offers shared solar subscriptions to smaller commercial customers (including nonprofits) as well as to residential customers.
The larger array provides solar power at a lower cost, which allows MGE to substantially narrow the cost differential between MGE’s shared solar service and its standard rates. The array should produce 9.2 million kilowatt-hours in its first full year of operation, enough electricity to cover the needs of about 1,182 average Wisconsin homes.
OneEnergy Renewables, a Seattle-based company whose Midwest office operates out of Madison, originally developed the 16-acre site at Morey Field (Middleton’s airport) where MGE’s solar array will be constructed. OneEnergy also recently developed a portfolio of solar arrays in western Wisconsin that supply electricity to seven different municipalities while providing renewable energy credits under long-term contracts to Organic Valley and the City of Madison.
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.
Across America, businesses are increasingly investing in clean, renewable energy. They know that the costs for wind and solar have plummeted, allowing the companies to take advantage of the low-cost electricity from renewables. In addition, customers, employees, and investors are increasingly looking to these businesses to make bigger commitments to improving their impacts on the world around us.
Over the past year, Chris Deisinger has acted as a consultant to RENEW Wisconsin to gather up all these corporate commitments to renewable energy, and do a deep dive into which of these national and multi-national firms have Wisconsin operations.
Today, we’re very excited to show you which of these national leaders have Wisconsin operations – and it’s a great list! These are companies who, over the coming years, will be searching for options to access renewable energy to cover the needs of their Wisconsin operations.
Corporations with Renewable Commitments & Wisconsin Operations
A timely example of renewable energy commitments in Wisconsin is Ashley Furniture, headquartered in Arcadia, Wisconsin. On Wednesday, Ashley announced a $29 million investment in renewable energy. The investment will be used to offset 35% of their energy use by installing solar panels at 10 of their largest facilities. Ashley expects to save at least $5 million in the first year.
Dozens of other companies in Wisconsin have also made commitments to renewable energy, including:
Utility Programs to Connect Commercial Customers with Renewable Energy
Wisconsin power companies are starting to put together programs to help companies like these, and other large customers, meet their renewable energy goals.
Two years ago, Madison Gas & Electric debuted a “Renewable Energy Rider” special service for its commercial customers, and just last month they announced they had the first two customers express interest.
Last fall, We Energies followed suit by proposing and gaining approval for a similar program that would enable their larger customers to sign up for access to dedicated renewable energy resources. We Energies was granted approval for their program in December 2018.
And, just a few weeks ago, Alliant Energy joined in, proposing a similar program again. Alliant’s program still requires approval from the Public Service Commission which oversees and regulates the utilities in Wisconsin.
A Brighter Future
Hopefully you caught Budweiser’s Super Bowl Commercial featuring their commitment to making every Budweiser with 100% wind energy. These are the types of success stories that can happen in Wisconsin too.
With dozens of corporations committing to renewable energy, and the utility programs to provide it, the future of renewables for Wisconsin is looking bright.