Opinion | Community solar lagging in Wisconsin

Also published in the Cap Times.

Madison, Wis. — Rising energy prices are one of many financial pressures that Wisconsin families are dealing with in recent years. As electrical usage has become ever more vital for modern work and life, Wisconsin residents are left with no options but to pay the constantly increasing rates imposed by utility companies or invest in producing their own power through solar, wind or other renewable sources.

Unfortunately, those alternatives are not always an option for everyone. Many residents cannot take advantage of home solar because they rent their home, lack adequate financing or because their roof is not structurally sound or is partially shaded. Wind power is challenging at residential sizes and is often cost prohibitive for many Wisconsinites.

This means a huge segment of our community is essentially left out in the cold during this energy crisis, unable to access alternative energy sources due to practical limitations and facing continually rising rates by the utilities on the other side.

As a lifelong Wisconsin resident, I find this situation difficult to accept when a tried and tested solution is right in front of us: community solar. Community solar is a solar project that interconnects into the distribution system —usually 25 to 35 acres in size. These projects are located near communities where residents can subscribe to the project and receive a credit on their utility bill for their share of the power that is produced, just as if the panels were on their own roof.

The benefits are manifold: Subscribers save 10% on average, they are creating private investments in local renewable energy infrastructure, they’re financially supporting local communities and they are actively contributing to a cleaner, healthier Wisconsin.

Typically, a community solar project will be located on unproductive farmland, a vacant lot in an industrial park or on a large rooftop of a school, church, business or government building. This is in contrast to utility scale projects that are usually hundreds or thousands of acres in size, take vast swaths of prime farmland out of production and are financially subsidized by ratepayers.

Farmers who have community solar projects built on their unsuitable land can earn up to $30,000 a year in lease payments, which will help keep more generational family farms profitable. And community solar projects require a two-thirds vote in support of the project by the local governing body in order to be built.

In addition to the direct benefits for the subscribers, allowing community solar access would be an immediate and significant boost in economic development for the local Wisconsin energy industry. As a leading solar contractor in the region, Arch Electric has employed dozens of Wisconsin workers, electricians, designers and other energy professionals to build community solar projects.

But not in Wisconsin. Those projects are currently not allowed in our state, so we have to send our crews to these projects in Illinois. This year alone we have employed over 40 Wisconsinites to build a project portfolio that is located eight hours away from our headquarters in Plymouth, Wisconsin. We want to build projects in Wisconsin, with a local workforce for the local economy.

Growing a strong workforce at home is challenging in these circumstances, especially when they could build these projects right here at home. There is a whole new generation of energy professionals entering the workforce across the nation, and right now Wisconsin is choosing to be left behind rather than developing our own workforce and energy economy.

The time has come to pass the needed reforms in the state Legislature to allow community solar to grow and thrive. Sen. Duey Stroebel and Reps. Scott Krug and Robert Brooks are leading the fight through legislation to establish third-party community solar in Wisconsin. Their legislation — Senate Bill 226 and a House companion bill — enables the development of community solar and supports energy freedom, expands customer choice and can help us save money on our utility bills.

So far 21 states, including Minnesota and Illinois, have enacted policies that expand community solar. Wisconsin is far behind, and households are needlessly paying more because of it.

As Wisconsin residents tighten their budgets and look for relief from rising prices, lawmakers in Madison must give them every option to put money back in their pockets.

Call your legislator today at 800-362-9472 and tell them to support Senate Bill 226.

JD Smith is business development coordinator at Arch Electric.


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