Construction begins on Milwaukee Public Museum’s solar wall

The Milwaukee Public Museum announced plans to cover the building’s 8-story tower with a 234 panel solar array. The completed project is predicted to produce 77,533 kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

By Trisha Bee

MILWAUKEE (WITI) – The Milwaukee Public Museum’s south façade is getting a 21stcentury update. The marble cladding on the 8-story tower of the Museum, which was built in the mid-1960s, is being replaced with 234 solar panels. Work on the project, scheduled to last approximately five months, started Monday, July 29th with preparation for the removal of the marble exterior. 

Over the past 50 years, the Museum’s heavy marble façade has weathered and become less stable, creating the need for an update on the south wall facing Wells Street. MPM explored both the use of recycled material and solar panels as replacement options, and decided on the later because of the energy-generating potential of solar. Milwaukee-based manufacturer Helios USA has been contracted to produce the Museum’s solar panels. 

MPM’s solar wall is expected to generate 77,533 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, the equivalent of having 442, 60-watt light bulbs on for eight hours every day for an entire year. MPM will be the only building in Milwaukee with a full solar wall that is generating electricity. 

During removal of the marble cladding, the MPM’s Puelicher Butterfly Vivarium and Bugs Alive! exhibit will be closed to ensure safety of Museum visitors and staff members. This phase of construction is expected to last approximately four weeks.

WE Energies Admits their Elm Road Power Plant Operates only 20 Percent of the Time

In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, company spokesman Brian Manthey attributes low natural gas prices and orders from a Midwest power supply operator to the plant’s low operation but Michael Vickerman notes that this is only part of the story. Read or listen to Chuck Quirmbach’s story to learn how rate payers are absorbing the costs of the plant’s low operation.

 By Chuck Quirmbach

As part of its ‘Power The Future‘ project a few years ago, WE Energies was allowed to build 1,200 megawatts of new coal-fired generating capacity near an existing power plant in Oak Creek. The new plant is called the Elm Road Generating Station. WE Energies concedes the plant only operated about 20 percent of the time last year. Company spokesman Brian Manthey says that’s due to orders from a Midwest power supply operator and low natural gas prices that made it cheaper to boost operation of a gas-fired plant. But Manthey says the Elm Road plant really cranked up when the weather got very hot last summer. 

“The two new units actually at times were operating beyond their rated capacity, at a time when there was power needed from every possible source in the Midwest.”

Manthey says with natural gas prices going up this year, he expects the Elm Road plant to run more. He says it’s available to generate power more than 90 percent of the time. But Michael Vickerman, of Renew Wisconsin, says WE Energies rate payers still have to keep paying for Elm Road, and aren’t getting much for their investment.


The New York Times Highlights MREA Fair Innovations and History

Michael Torttorello offers an informative and exciting overview of the MREA Fair’s history and the passionate participants who make it possible.
By Michael Tortorello
At 9 o’clock Friday morning, some 20,000 people will start arriving at a
vast field in Custer, Wis., to talk about wind power. No joke. Get
this: Thousands of souls have been coming here every summer for 23 years
to talk — really talk — about wind power. 
Here is the Energy Fair,
a three-day convergence of homesteaders, hippies, ecotopians and more
than a few end-times enthusiasts, staged by the Midwest Renewable Energy
Association. Beyond the lecture titled “MacGyver Windmills” (that is,
devices fabricated from junk), a $15 day pass gets you admission to 200
other workshops. Would you like to learn about home algae cultivation
and humane rabbit husbandry (for meat and wool)? How about advanced
photovoltaic systems and D.I.Y. biodiesel

The overarching theme is what marketers call “sustainable living,” and
these days it hardly qualifies as a kooky pursuit. Many of the fair’s
longtime commercial exhibitors, manufacturers of solar-energy technology
or rainwater harvesting kits, could now find a home at the Home Depot.


How Wisconsin regulators 'tax' renewable energy

Michael Vickerman’s commentary in Midwest Energy News on the recent changes in WI renewable energy. Find the original post here.

Commentary: How Wisconsin regulators ‘tax’ renewable energy

RENEW Wisconsin’s Michael Vickerman

Starting next January, the price of purchasing renewable energy voluntarily through monthly utility bills will spike to all-time highs, thanks to recent decisions rendered by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSCW) on two popular “green pricing” programs.

The thousands of Madison Gas & Electric (MGE) customers participating in the utility’s Green Power Tomorrow program will see their premiums jump from 2.5 cents/kWh to 4 cents/kWh. That’s an increase of 60 percent. To translate this into dollars and cents, an average MGE customer consuming 500 kWh of electricity per month and subscribing at the 100 percent level will pay $90 more in 2013 for the same amount of renewable kWh sold this year.

Residential customers of Milwaukee-based We Energies (WE) will see an even larger percentage increase next year. In that utility’s rate case, the PSCW jacked up the premium paid by Energy for Tomorrow subscribers by nearly 73 percent, from 1.39 cents to 2.4 cents/kWh. Energy for Tomorrow has more than 20,000 subscribers.

Back in 1999, the year both programs were launched, MGE and WE customers paid an extra 3.33 cents and 2.04 cents/kWh, respectively, for the renewable energy they sponsored. Come January 1st, MGE and WE will likely share the dubious distinction of being the only utilities in the country offering renewable energy at a higher rate than they did in the 1990’s. So much for progress.

Adding insult to injury, renewable program subscribers will be subject to general rate increases approved by the PSCW this November. The utilities sought higher rates to recover the costs of retrofitting older coal-fired power stations with modern pollution controls. The fact that the renewable generators leveraged by program participants will never need pollution control retrofits is wholly disregarded in determining the size of the premium.

This is unquestionably a subsidy that flows from program participants to all ratepayers.

How did this happen?
Since 1999, renewable generation costs have tumbled, while productivity has improved.
A frustrated program subscriber might well ask: If base utility rates are going up, and the cost of renewable electricity is declining, why are premiums going up instead of down?

The short answer is that wholesale electricity prices have sagged in recent years, owing to a combination of unsustainably low natural gas prices, stagnant demand, and rapid expansion of wind power displacing higher-cost generation. In contrast, the price of renewable energy procured under long-term contracts held steady. When prices dropped in the wholesale market beginning in late 2008, the gap between system energy and renewable sources widened.

Though accurate, the above explanation is deeply unsatisfying, because the wholesale “market” is concerned about one thing only: the marginal cost of producing electricity into the grid. Nothing else matters, including the expenditures approved by the PSCW to reduce emissions from older generators. Even though retail customers wind up footing the bill for those upgrades, the wholesale market does not treat pollution control retrofits as marginal costs. Not one cent paid by ratepayers for these expenditures is reflected in the prices that renewable generators compete against.

The net effect of this disconnect is to artificially suppress the price of electricity from older and dirtier generators relative to newer and cleaner electricity producers. Real markets factor in the cost of upgrading and replacing capital equipment that manufacture the product bought by customers. What we have instead is an artificial contrivance that sacrifices long-term considerations like clean air, resource diversity and regulatory risk for the short-term reward of low prices.

Indeed, it would be difficult to design a more punitive market structure for renewables than the one we have at present.

‘Swimming up a waterfall’
Pricing renewable energy against a market operating in real time also undermines a valuable attribute of renewable energy, namely its inherent price stability. In this environment, the only way a customer can directly benefit from a fixed-price energy source like solar is to self-generate at his or her premises to reduce consumption of grid-supplied electricity.

In setting the premium size, the PSCW relied on pricing data at a time when the regional wholesale market was near its cyclical bottom. Electricity prices are now edging upward as forward prices of natural gas have rebounded from historic lows earlier this year. It’s a safe bet that wholesale electricity prices will continue to increase in 2013.

This sets up the very real possibility that WE and MGE will collect more revenue than is necessary to cover the cost spread between system energy and the renewable energy supplies servicing their customers. Unfortunately, the next time the base premium for each utility can be adjusted is January 1, 2015.

For at least a century now, fossil fuels have been the default resource option for most utilities. Against this institutional bias, switching to renewable energy is akin to swimming upstream. But given how far backward the PSCW bent to accommodate utilities’ continued reliance on coal and natural gas, quite a few renewable energy subscribers may balk at the prospect of swimming up a waterfall.

In fairness to MGE and WE, the price hikes approved by the PSCW went well beyond the incremental increases proposed by the two utilities. That’s because the agency relies solely on the wholesale “market” metric described above that filters out all societal benefits from the equation. To the agency, renewables are another source of electrons that deserve no special consideration. And, in reaching its decision, the PSCW disregarded the potential impact that abrupt price hikes might have on customer participation.

Programs outliving their usefulness?
A significant loss in subscribership would be a regrettable outcome if the programs were still viable vehicles for leveraging new sources of renewable energy. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

Earlier this decade, WE and MGE pulled the plug on a popular feature of their programs, specifically the special solar energy buyback rates that were funded with participant dollars. This innovation, which spurred the installation of hundreds of solar electric systems in their territories, succeeded in elevating MGE and WE’s stature while achieving the aims of their participating customers. However, when the utilities eliminated their solar incentives, they also removed the principal rationale for subscribing to their programs.

It seems quite clear that the current crop of voluntary renewable energy programs have outlived their usefulness. They are stagnating under a market structure that distorts and amplifies their true costs as well as a regulatory climate that greatly discounts their benefits to ratepayers. What were once dynamic vehicles for increasing supplies of renewable energy are now little more than feel-good marketing exercises running on autopilot. The value proposition to customers just isn’t there anymore.

There is nothing out there to prevent utilities from revitalizing their green pricing programs and making them useful once again. Such an undertaking, however, would require them to do something they haven’t done before: present an affirmative case for adding more renewables into their energy mix.

To do that effectively, utilities would need to recognize that the fossil energy path leads to a dead-end and that renewables ought to be the default resource option going forward. From that starting point, designing a program in which modest customer premiums actually result in additional supplies of renewable energy should be a simple and straightforward exercise.

It’s the very least a responsible utility should do to reduce the impact of generating electricity on the one planet we are privileged to call home.

Michael Vickerman is program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin, a sustainable energy advocacy organization. RENEW Wisconsin is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Find the original article post here.

State’s Renewable Standard Delivers Positive Results

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Michael Vickerman
608.255.4044,ext. 2

State’s Renewable Standard Delivers Positive Results
Most utilities already meeting 2015 targets
Most Wisconsin electricity providers have already acquired all the renewable energy supplies they need to meet the state’s 10% target in 2015, according to the Public Service Commission (PSCW).

The agency’s annual compliance review showed that nearly 9% of electricity sold by in-state electricity providers in 2011 originated from such renewable energy resources as sunlight, biogas, hydro, landfill gas and wind, compared with 3% in 2006.

“By any measure, the state’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES) has been an unqualified success,” said Michael Vickerman, program and policy director for RENEW Wisconsin. “From the standpoint of job creation, resource diversity, price stability, environmental protection and revenue generation, the RES has delivered  exceptional value to a state that is very dependent on imported fossil fuels for electricity generation.”

Passed in 2006, the RES has been the most powerful policy for driving growth in renewable electricity sales. Yet with so many electricity providers already in compliance with their 2015 requirements, the prospects for new investments in home-grown energy sources are uncertain.
“Right now, we don’t have a policy in place for directing investments into clean energy after 2015,” Vickerman said. “If we want to reap the economic and environmental benefits that come with renewables, state lawmakers will have to extend the Renewable Energy Standard or adopt a successor policy.”

“Investments in renewable resources not only supply Wisconsin utility customers with clean energy, they also generate work opportunities for local manufacturers and businesses, additional revenue for local governments, and income for farmers,” said Vickerman.

“Renewable energy should be the cornerstone of an economic development strategy that aims to increase the state’s workforce and expand investment opportunities,” Vickerman said. “We look forward to working with the Governor and the next Legislature to put in place a realistic, low-cost policy framework that maintains the momentum building from the current RES.”