Wisconsin will never compare to California and Arizona when it comes to solar power generation — the sun just doesn’t shine enough in the upper Midwest to make solar a major, reliable source of renewable energy. Yet there are options abound for people in southwestern Wisconsin to invest in solar power.
Utilities like Minnesota-based Xcel Energy Inc. and Dairyland Power Cooperative based in La Crosse have invested heavily in solar in recent years.
Dairyland recently announced plans to add three new solar gardens by year’s end in Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois.
The projects will complete a 2015 plan the wholesale power supplier made to generate 25 megawatts of solar power, or about 2.5 percent of Dairyland’s electricity generation portfolio.
“Our customers like solar. We said it’s a good idea to disburse these because weather patterns can vary, we want to optimize reliability and we don’t want to put a lot of money into infrastructure and substations, said Craig Harmes, Dairyland’s business development manager. “Our member-consumers like to see these projects locally.”
Dairyland sells power to 24 other cooperatives and 17 municipal utilities in rural areas in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
For more urban consumers and businesses, Xcel Energy has developed solar gardens in Eau Claire, the La Crosse area and Ashland that are available on a subscription basis.
“The way the subscription works is a business or residential customer pays up front for the output of these panels. They don’t own the panels, so they don’t have to maintain them,” said Xcel community service manager Mike Herro. “Once they pay that subscription price, then they get credits for the next 25 years on their bill, depending on how much their portion produced.”
The solar gardens Xcel has already built in Eau Claire, those they plan to build this summer in Cashton, Wisconsin, and next year in Ashland, will total seven acres and contain 3,200 solar panels.
Herro said 95 percent of the panels for the Eau Claire and Cashton projects, and 70 percent of the Ashland project have already been subscribed to by customers.
In recent years, federal tax credits and the lower cost of solar panels have boosted interest in the private sector where more homeowners and businesses are exploring installing solar energy.
“They call us because they like the idea of being in solar,” said Blaine Marcou, co-owner of Aquilla Solar of La Crosse and Wabasha, Minnesota. “But only 25 percent of properties can put solar on their properties because they live in apartments or condominiums or in the shade, so then they would subscribe to the solar gardens.”
The solar gardens that Dairyland and Xcel build and operate double as prairie gardens designed to be good pollination places for butterflies and bees.
– John Davis