by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
September 27, 2010

One of the abiding pleasures of my job at RENEW Wisconsin is going out into the field to visit renewable energy installations. Many of the systems sprouting across the state owe their existence to state and federal policies that make these systems economically viable to their owners.

In turn, some of those policies owe their existence to RENEW, an advocacy organization that has elevated the Wisconsin renewable energy marketplace from a dreamy aspiration to a thriving marketplace employing hundreds of people and generating millions of dollars a year in local revenues.

Whenever I’m asked to describe our mission, I often say that we act as a catalyst for advancing a sustainable energy future in Wisconsin. Our vision of that future places small, entrepreneurial companies at the center of the transition toward clean, locally available energy resources that do not deplete over time.

RENEW endeavors to steer Wisconsin along this path through policy mechanisms that help renewable energy businesses establish themselves in an economy that for many decades has operated almost exclusively on fossil energy. Because of that dependence on concentrated energy sources like coal, natural gas and liquid hydrocarbons, which are still priced very cheaply, the shift to renewable energy has been an uphill battle. The incumbent energy sources are well-entrenched and will not hesitate to expend significant political capital to block policy initiatives aimed at putting renewable energy on a more equal playing field.

At RENEW’s urging, the State of Wisconsin has taken a few measured policy steps to carve out some room for renewable energy. The most important of these initiatives is a statewide incentives program (Focus on Energy) for small-scale renewable energy systems. Though most of Focus on Energy’s budget is set aside for energy conservation and efficiency, about $10 million a year is reserved for customer-sited renewable energy systems such as solar hot water, solar electric, biogas, biomass heating, and small wind.

This program, coupled with several voluntary utility initiatives, has elevated Wisconsin into a regional showcase for renewable energy systems serving dairy farms, cattle farms, orchards, greenhouses, breweries, cheese producers, corporate campuses, apartment buildings, municipal wastewater facilities, schools and technical colleges, and manufacturers.

The policy seeds planted 10 years ago are yielding an impressive crop of installations this year, broadly distributed throughout the state. As important as these policies are, however, these systems don’t get built unless someone decides to spend dollars today to receive a decades-long supply of energy tomorrow. We at RENEW would like to give a shout-out to the owners and installers of this year’s bumper crop of home-grown renewable energy, including:

 The City of Evansville, for hosting a 100 kilowatt (kW) Northwind turbine to serve its wastewater treatment plant. Installer: H &H Solar, Madison.
 Stonehouse Development, for building two Green Built apartment houses in the Madison area, each with 60 kilowatts of rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems and solar water heating systems. Installers: Full Spectrum Solar, Madison (PV); Cardinal Solar, Sun Prairie, solar hot water.
 Random Lake School District, for hosting a 50 kW Endurance wind turbine on the high school grounds. Installer: Kettle View Renewable Energy, Random Lake.
 Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms, in Columbia County, for hosting a 50 kW Endurance wind turbine to serve its sustainable family farm. Installer: Seventh Generation Energy Systems, Madison.
 SCA Tissue, Menasha, for hosting four 20 kW Renewegy wind turbines at one of its facilities. Manufacturer and installer: Renewegy, Oshkosh.
 Milwaukee Area Technical College, for building the state’s largest PV system, to be used as a training center. The system is rated at 540 kW. Contractor: Johnson Controls, Milwaukee; Installer: Pieper Power, Milwaukee.
 Montchevré-Betin, Belmont, a producer of goat cheese, for upgrading its wastewater treatment capacity with an anaerobic digester and 335 kW generator. Contractor: Procorp, Milwaukee. System owner: Clear Horizons, Milwaukee.

I urge the citizens of Wisconsin to go out and see for themselves how fertile the territory is here for home-grown renewable energy. As you observe these installations out in the landscape, delivering clean energy year after year to the local area, you begin to appreciate the totality of benefits that these systems yield. If you talk to system owners or installers, you will feel their passion and soak in the positive energy that comes from being part of this growing community. They are, along with the installations themselves, the most persuasive advocates for extending and strengthening Wisconsin’s clean energy policies. They not only represent today’s jobs and business opportunities, but also tomorrow’s hope.