From an article by Tom Content in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

It was five years ago that renewable energy proponents dubbed this Wisconsin’s Solar Decade – the 10 years that would move solar energy from the fringe to the mainstream.

In 2010, solar remains a fraction of the state’s energy mix, but it’s growing. And with it, interest is intensifying in manufacturing products for the solar industry.

As solar advocates prepare to host industry conferences this week, the solar industry is installing larger projects, and the cost per project is shrinking.

“It’s not getting sunnier in Wisconsin, but prices are coming down and rates are going up,” said Niels Wolter, solar electric program manager at Focus on Energy, the statewide energy efficiency initiative that provides incentives for renewable energy installations.

So far this year, the typical cost of a solar-electric system installed at a business with the help of Focus on Energy incentives has fallen 13% from a year ago. The price of these same systems installed on homes has fallen by 7%.

“We’re seeing that it may cost $6,000 to $9,000 to install a solar hot water system on a home, and the payback may be around 12 to 14 years,” said Amy Heart, Milwaukee solar coach and head of Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Milwaukee office.

A solar-electric, or photovoltaic, system may cost $15,000, but it has a payback of about 10 years, she said.

The main hurdle to broader deployment of solar remains the high upfront cost, as well as the complexity of the incentives available to bring down the cost, Wolter said.

In recent months, though, attention to solar has intensified in the area:

• Construction started this summer on the state’s first solar panel factory, Helios USA, in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley. Helios expects to employ 50 people by next summer.

“That’s a good sign for Wisconsin, that there are going to be some jobs here on the manufacturing side in addition to the installation side of things,” said Carl Siegrist, senior renewable energy strategist at Milwaukee utility company We Energies.

• The largest solar project to date in the state opened in Milwaukee. It’s the Milwaukee Area Technical College PV Educational Laboratory, generating more than 500 kilowatts of power, all with the aim of training students for careers in renewable energy.

• The number of businesses engaged in solar is increasing. Two years ago, seven companies were installing solar in a 20-mile radius of Milwaukee. This year, that number has more than tripled, to 24.