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Friday, July 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  Overcast
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Let the sun shine in: Madison is a hot spot for solar energy despite state cutbacks

A pergola gets the solar-panel treatment. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Larry Walker
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For Courtland Maney, the idea was small, bright and persistent, like the morning sun through a chink in the blinds. What would it be like to generate my own power?

During the 22 years he was living in Janesville and working construction, Maney's life was connected to the sun in a simple but vital way. If the sun shone, he worked. He can't really put his finger on when, exactly, he began to think of the sun as a big ball of ultra-dependable energy that comes up every morning and goes down again every night. But once the idea took hold, he couldn't shake it. Solar panels are the way to go.

But cost was an issue: $25,000 to install panels on his house, he'd heard. And his roof didn't have the right orientation. In his line of work, he'd noticed that very few houses - even the brand-new energy-efficient ones - were built to take full advantage of the sun.

Then, in 2010, Maney got a job at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the facilities department. He and his wife moved to the far east side. They bought another house.

"As soon as we moved in, I noticed how the sun was coming up and going down, and I knew the pitch of the roof was right," Maney says. "I'd heard about Madison starting a solar group-purchase program. So I looked into it."

The group-purchase plan, offered by the city through its MadiSUN Solar Energy program, put the cost of solar panels within reach. Joining 22 other homeowners, Maney spent a total of $15,000, after rebates, incentives and the group discount. Since December, when his panels went up, Maney has been watching the skies - and his energy meter.

"Every day the sun's out, it's like money in the bank," he says.

Maney's outlook may be a harbinger of the future of solar energy in Madison. The city and the feds are banking on it. Designated a Solar America City in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Energy, the city received federal funds to create MadiSUN, a program that encourages homeowners to adopt solar technologies. More federal dollars rolled in this December when Madison and other members of a team called Grow Solar Wisconsin received more than $450,000 via the SunShot Initiative Rooftop Solar Challenge.

The name recalls JFK's famous "moonshot" imperative, only this time the race-to-the-top model is meant to restore U.S. leadership in the global clean-energy race. Grow Solar Wisconsin's job is to remove permitting red tape and other barriers so businesses and homeowners have an easier time installing solar systems.

But the state is not helping much. In January the Public Service Commission suspended Focus on Energy incentives for renewable energy, including solar system purchases. And on Friday, the agency announced it was rejiggering its renewable energy plan to favor biogas and biomass over wind and solar, drastically reducing its budget for solar incentives in 2013-2014. Solar advocates in Madison are nevertheless forging ahead, hoping federal money and city programs will fuel growth in a renewable-energy sector that's rocky, but growing, nationwide.

MadiSUN program manager Bryant Moroder sees rooftop photovoltaic panels as an investment and believes homeowners and businesses should, too.

More people, he says, are taking a step back and thinking differently about a cost - electricity bills - they once considered fixed.

"Energy independence," says Moroder. "You hear that a lot. People are drawn to the idea of creating their own energy, on their own roofs."

In Wisconsin, electricity prices are increasing, on average, 6% each year. Just last month, Madison Gas and Electric announced that it was proposing a 5.8% rate hike (plus a 2.6% hike for natural gas). This would pay for new emissions-reduction equipment at its Columbia power plant near Portage, as well as a portion of construction costs for a $2.35 billion coal-fired plant in Oak Creek that it co-owns with We Energies.

Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels, while still steep, is dropping as the technology quickly advances. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more solar was installed nationwide in the third quarter of 2011 than in all of 2009.

Maney's electricity bill in February was exactly 29 cents. Because he is signed up for a buy-back plan from Alliant Energy - where he gets paid for every kilowatt/hour (kWh) of electricity he doesn't use - he is expecting a credit for sunny March.

It will be a few more years before solar energy becomes a stable industry that supports itself without incentives, experts say. But at a certain point, the decreasing cost of solar will come within shouting distance of the rising cost (both real and intangible) of energy generated from fossil fuels. When that happens, Madison could be poised for leadership in a new, green economy.

"We are looking at creative ways to break down barriers for solar," says Jeanne Hoffman, facilities and sustainability manager for the city of Madison.

In a city where people love to band together to buy things - think food co-ops and CSAs - MadiSUN's group purchasing program has been a hit. Adapted from Portland, Ore., the program was launched in June 2011 and, tapping into pent-up demand, attracted 22 interested homeowners ready to make the switch to solar energy. In a competitive bidding process, the group chose Full Spectrum Solar to install state-of-the-art photovoltaic panels on each home in late 2011. The group buy helped each household shave about 10% off the cost of its system. These folks also got in under the wire with the state's now-suspended Focus on Energy incentives, so the average savings, after incentives and the 30% federal tax rebates, was around $12,250.

"That's like buying a 30-year battery for your house and only paying for 15 years' worth," Moroder points out. Plus, he says, with rising electricity prices, there is "a guaranteed rate of return that you're not going to get in the stock market."

Then there are the environmental benefits. Three million kWh of renewable energy will be produced over the lifetime of these installations, reducing the emission of CO2 by more than 100 tons per year. The next MadiSUN residential group solar purchase is already under way, with members of Willy Street Co-op.

Energy independence and environmental benefits went hand in hand for Nancy Korda and Gordon Medaris, members of the initial MadiSUN group. The couple installed 16 PV panels on the roof of their condo unit in Tamarack Trails Condominium Village on Madison's far west side. The process took about a week; on Nov. 29, the first "green electrons" began flowing into the house.

"It was exciting," says Korda, a slight, quietly intense woman with a cascade of silver hair. "For a while, we checked our output every day. Now we're down to about once or twice a week."

Like most renewable energy fans, Korda and Medaris are a bit obsessive about their data. New smart-grid technology allows homeowners and installers to watch what's happening with their panels in real time. And watch they do. Medaris, a genial emeritus professor of geoscience at the UW, pulls up a display graph on his desktop monitor. On this cloudy day, all 16 panels are dead black. Energy produced so far today: zero.

"I've been surprised at the number of cloudy days in winter," Medaris muses. An often-mentioned drawback to solar panels is that they don't produce much energy on overcast days or (obviously) at night. But, proponents say, it all evens out. During super-sunny periods, when customers are generating more than they can use, utilities like MGE and Alliant pay them for the extra kilowatts. And, of course, energy consumption plummets at night, when people are asleep.

Photovoltaic cells work like this: The sun shines down on nonreflective glass panels fitted with thin wafers containing a silicon-based semiconductor material. Silicon is the key. Usually, when sunlight hits a surface, much of its energy is converted to heat. But a silicon semiconductor transforms the sunlight (photons) into an electric current (moving electrons). Inverters on each panel then transform that energy into basic AC (alternating current) electrical power. The AC either feeds into the building or goes out onto the grid.

Energy experts estimate that Wisconsin is mostly sunny for six months of the year, and the rest of the year, it's sunny about half of the daylight hours. Houses and systems vary - Maney reports that his panels generated some power even with snow cover (though he's invested in a roof rake for next year). No one in the group-purchase program has experienced summer yet, but the oddly sunny March gave a taste of savings in store: The Korda-Medaris household generated 393 kWh of electricity (close to 100% of their average monthly use) and, to date, they've offset more than 1,786 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

On Korda's monitor floats a mesmerizing screen-saver image of a humpback whale breaching in the blue, blue water of the Sea of Cortez. Annual trips to beautiful places are one of the few splurges for this retired couple, who live on public pensions. Otherwise, they are relatively frugal, driving only one car, canning and freezing their own food, and, of course, strictly monitoring their energy use. Most households use more than 600 kWh a month; the Korda-Medaris household averages between 300 and 450. Moroder says this already-frugal energy use pattern is typical of the homeowners in his program, and it helps to make the upfront cost worthwhile.

"They can offset about 75% of their traditional electricity with these systems, because they already conserve."

Korda estimates their payback to be 18 years. For some people, committing to one home for that long might be hard. There's the resale value of the home to consider, too. For some buyers, solar panels would be a plus; for others, a turnoff.

Korda and Medaris found this out when they presented their solar panel proposal for approval to Tamarack Trails architectural review board. Concerns and objections held the process up for a month.

"Some were worried it would lower property values," recalls Medaris. "Another asked if the panels could be mounted on the back of the house, instead of the front."

In the end, thanks in part to a city ordinance that says a condo association can't dictate the placement of any solar array, the couple got their approval. And in a community that Korda describes as "pretty conservative," there's been a fair amount of curiosity about the system.

"People have asked us, what was the cost? How difficult was it to do this? They don't sound as if they will, but they sound as if they might like to," Korda says.

When someone on the block buys a hybrid car, everybody starts thinking about hybrid cars. Pretty soon, three more households own hybrids. It's the same with solar, according to a study, Peer Effects in the Diffusion of Solar Photovoltaic Panels, published in December. Conducted by Bryan Bollinger of New York University and Kenneth Gillingham of Yale, the study found that "a 1% increase in installed solar leads to a 9% increase in the street adoption rate." In other words, solar is contagious.

The city of Madison knows this, which is why solar hot water and solar PV panels have been steadily added to new and existing municipal buildings since 2005.

"It's important to lead by example," says Hoffman. "Obviously the city uses a lot of power. Where that power comes from matters."

In 2004, an ad-hoc city energy committee drafted "Building a Green Capital City," a plan calling for Madison to become the greenest city in the country, while also increasing its economic vitality, according to Hoffman. Since then, the city has installed solar hot water systems in all 12 of its fire stations and popped PV panels up at eight city-owned properties, including rooftop systems at Alicia Ashman Library (7.1 kW) and the Waste Transfer Station on East Olin Avenue (9.86 kW) and pole-mounted PV panels at the East Police Station (8.62 kW). Other solar arrays on city property, including at the Goodman Pool and Henry Vilas Zoo, are demonstration projects by MGE.

Tim Nicholson, one of four owners of Glass Nickel Pizza Co., just installed $50,000 worth of solar hot-water panels on the roof of his Atwood Avenue restaurant, where they are visible from a block or two away. While he says he was at first shocked by the price tag, the move made sense for a variety of reasons.

"It's lowered our utility bills by 15%-20% a month," Nicholson says. "Customers love it, which is good for sales."

But it will take 11 years to begin realizing a return. Is he worried about that?

Nicholson shrugs. A couple Saturdays ago, the panels were producing 98% of the restaurant's hot water.

"Other business owners have told me I'm crazy. But you gotta think long term. Everybody else just thinks three months down the road."

Solar systems are also on display at the Willy Street Co-op and Copps supermarket in Sun Prairie, and there's a huge solar "farm" at Epic systems in Verona. Solar seems like a no-brainer for any medium to large business that owns a building. All that roof space! Fold the cost of panels into capital expenditures and watch the energy credits pile up. But it turns out that for many companies, the cost is still prohibitive. When it comes to improving building performance, there is much more low-hanging fruit, according to Jessie Lerner of the environmental activist group Sustain Dane.

Lerner coordinates the MPower Business ChaMpions program (co-sponsored by MGE, the city of Madison and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), which has helped more than 80 enrolled businesses develop and roll out a sustainability program. Many come into the program with solar "high on their list," says Lerner, because an owner (or a client) is excited about the technology. After companies go through a solar assessment process, though, and discover that the payback for PV panels is, on average, eight years, many turn to less expensive efficiency measures that can be achieved right away.

"Updating their lighting or revamping their HVAC frees up dollars for solar in the future," says Lerner. "We advocate for efficiency first, renewable second. Businesses get that."

No doubt the state's reduced budget for solar will affect the small but growing industry, composed of suppliers like Cardinal Solar Technologies in Mazomanie and Helios Solar Works in Milwaukee, as well as installers such as Full Spectrum and Resource Solar in Madison. But Grow Solar Wisconsin, the team awarded the $450,000 federal grant in December, will be hard at work removing many of the "soft costs" that make solar expensive in the first place, such as permitting, inspection and interconnection throughout Madison and the state.

"It's too bad that the state effectively said 'no thanks' to 180 solar companies located throughout Wisconsin and one of the only industries in the country that saw triple-digit growth in 2011," MadiSUN's Moroder says. "But one goal of Grow Solar Wisconsin's efforts is to make incentives less necessary in the first place."

A new concept, currently being explored by the city of Madison, may further change the landscape for commercial solar: purchase power agreements (PPAs). Basically, a third party shells out for the up-front installation that's such a barrier for businesses and municipalities. Then, that third party charges a reasonable energy fee - let's say it's about what the utility is currently charging for fossil fuel-generated electricity - for the life of the system. The electricity bill never goes up, the energy is clean, and the up-front costs are nonexistent.

That's the way solar installations are financed and installed in other states, says Hoffman. "Salt Lake, Denver, most cities in California - this is the way solar is done."

The city has hired a financial services firm, Baker Tilley, to determine whether a PPA would work for Madison. Uncertainties abound, including how the Public Service Commission would view such a move. Would a PPA illegally compete with local utilities?

"In some states this is absolutely outlawed. Wisconsin is a state where it's unclear. Utilities' attitude will play a key role," says Hoffman.

The feedback from MGE so far seems to be, as long as the power that is provided is "behind the meter" (in other words, the building uses all the power being generated and there is no net electricity being sold on the grid), then the utility doesn't view PPA as a power provider (read: competitor).

"But that's MGE," Hoffman says. "Other utilities in the state feel differently."

The city will have the results of its study by early June. One thing is clear, though. A supportive stance on solar from local utilities such as MGE is critical to the widespread adoption of solar energy in Madison and beyond.

MGE has a profit-driven agenda, just like every other big utility, but years ago the company recognized that some of its customers were concerned with conservation and renewable energy. In response, MGE designed programs like Green Power Tomorrow (where customers pay a premium to purchase wind energy from the grid) and Clean Power Partners (which was recently capped, but which pays homeowners who've installed solar PV panels a satisfying 25 cents per kWh).

The utility's net-metering program currently allows homeowners to "sell" their extra solar energy back to the grid at the retail rate that they pay MGE for coal-generated electricity. (Note: the payback drops sharply if a homeowner begins creating too much green surplus energy - say, more than their annual consumption. MGE doesn't want homeowners to turn into power providers.)

The MGE Foundation has donated PV systems to area high schools and installed live data feeds for public viewing.

Jeff Ford, a senior energy analyst with MGE, says the company has learned that photovoltaic panels on a roof connect neighbors to one another and launch discussions about what people believe. And when MGE has surveyed customers about which form of renewable energy they prefer, solar comes out on top.

"There's something visceral about sunlight," says Ford. "It makes people feel good."

Renewable energy showcased at Isthmus Green Day

Isthmus Green Day, the free environmental expo, runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, at Monona Terrace. It includes vendors and exhibitors that emphasize renewable energy, including MadiSUN Solar Energy Program, Midwest Renewable Energy Association and Preservation Products. Focus on Energy presents hourly demonstrations on home energy efficiency beginning at 9 a.m. Isthmus Green Day also focuses on other aspects of a sustainable lifestyle, including diet. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman gives the 2 p.m. keynote address.

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