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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Groups Across Wisconsin Are Focused On Creating More Solar Energy

Solar panels at Milwaukee airport
Susan Bence
Solar panels at Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport.

Solar power generation is considered critical for a transition to clean energy. As WUWM's Earth Week series continues, environmental reporter Susan Bence looks at Wisconsin‘s solar climate.

On the southeastern edge of Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport, there is a sea of solar panels. They cover about three acres just next to the Wisconsin Air National Guard Base Refueling Wing.

Brendon Conway with WE Energies says the project is part of the company’s Solar Now program.

“Every single one of our, so far, 16 Solar Now projects that are up and running are using space that otherwise would just neither not be used or underused, and now they’re providing real value and all this energy is going to serve our customers,” explains Conway.

Susan Bence
(From left) Tyson Strankman from Sunvest, the local company that installed the system, Elizabeth Hittman from City of Milwaukee Environmental Collaboration Office and Brendan Conway from WE Energies at the Mitchell Airport solar field.

The property continues to be owned by the city of Milwaukee, while the 2.25-megawatt solar panel installation — enough to power 500 to 600 homes, belongs to WE Energies.

Elizabeth Hittman, sustainability program manager for Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office, says the city is eager to partner on solar projects.

Extended Conversation: Groups Across Wisconsin Are Focused On Creating More Solar Energy

“We’re encouraging home and business owners to install solar — looking at solar and renewable energy for city-owned buildings, so across the board we’re really trying to get as much solar and renewable energy as we can,” says Hittman.

Statewide, the equivalent of 62,700 Wisconsin households are solar powered, according to RENEW Wisconsin. RENEW policy analyst Andrew Kell says historically the state has fallen in the middle of the pack, both nationally and regionally, when it comes to solar development.

But Wisconsin pales in comparison to neighboring Minnesota.

“That’s been due to a lot of progressive policies that Minnesota has had to require utilities to develop solar as well as recognizing the full value of solar, having integrated resource planning and other policies to instigate utility scale as well as customer owned solar,” says Kell.

But Heather Allen, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, believes the state is in a position to leapfrog to meet or exceed other states’ solar standing.

Allen points to Gov. Tony Evers proposed budget. “There’s 28 provisions on clean energy and climate in [there],” she says.

Allen says more and more communities aren’t waiting for state government to act on solar.

“Something that’s happening in a couple of rural communities, they’re creating energy districts — locally identifying problem and solutions on how to help manage their own energy — and it’s very exciting to see people, to understand that they have a stake in the game and a role to play,” she says.

Chuck Tennessen is one of those people. Tennessen is the co-creator of Iowa County Clean Local Energy Alliance - Now (CLEA-N), which works to promote local ownership of clean energy sources in the southwest Wisconsin county.

Susan Bence
Chuck Tenneseen (left) and Jennifer Filipiak (right), from the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, standing on one of the spots on the edge of Dodgeville, Wisconsin being considered for a solar project.

“We’re standing here at a substation and it’s right below a south-sloping field. With the substation here and the configuration of the land, it’s really an ideal looking spot for a small solar array,” he says.

While CLEA-N is negotiating with the local utility to try to make the project as community friendly and carbon neutral as possible, Tennessen says it takes time and human energy to convince fellow residents to get involved.

So, Tenessen’s group started reaching out with light bulbs — LEDs, of course, and lots of them.

“We gave away or exchanged 7,050 LED bulbs in Iowa County to 1,100 households. We estimate the dollars savings over the lifetime of those bulbs will be over a half a million dollars and annually, we will save 200 metric tons of emissions,” he says.

Key to creating a sustainable clean energy future is creating clean energy jobs. Back in Milwaukee in the Walnut Way neighborhood, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association is piloting a solar construction training project.

Program manager Amanda Schienebeck says the program is also being piloted in Evansville, Indiana; Minneapolis and Detroit.

Susan Bence
Damien Johnson (center) at a Midwest Renewable Energy Association job training for workers looking to enter the solar industry.

“We raised about $30,000 to provide scholarships. We’re doing the lab day here, where they are actually putting the solar module system together. And then after this, they are all eligible for the NAPCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners) certification exam, which would give them that industry certification to pursue a career in solar industry,” says Schienbeck.

Damien Johnson is listening intently to the solar instructor. Because of the pandemic, the program has been virtual and this is the first time Johnson is getting field experience.

“This was a very new experience to me. This was nice to learn all and all, and it will look amazing on the resume,” he says.

Milwaukee advocates are hoping to provide more people with opportunities to explore renewable energy jobs and more opportunities for homeowners to go solar.

On Thursday, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association is launching Grow Solar Greater Milwaukee, encouraging homeowners to participate in a solar group buy program. The association is hoping the streamlined, cost-saving program attracts more people to the sun.

Also on Thursday, the state Public Service Commission will be taking up what would be the largest solar project yet in the state. Alliant Energy seeks to acquire six solar farms, totaling 675 megawatts. The proposal would create twice the total amount of solar energy currently being generated in the state, and would potentially generate approximately 2% of the total electricity consumed in Wisconsin.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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