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Bumps in Milwaukee's Solar Road

Milwaukee's solar landscape continues to expand and contract. Before Helios Solar Works shut down, Solar Riverwest came to life.

Eight new solar panels gleam atop Steve Jerbi’s garage.

“What we’ve got up here is 2 kilowatts, which will generate about 1/3 of our usage.”

We Energies connected the panels to the grid, creating a miniature power plant behind Jerbi’s house on Booth Street. The same happened at 16 other homes in Riverwest. Its residents wholeheartedly jumped into the city’s Milwaukee Shines program. Jerbi says it pulls together tax incentives and rebates, and “bought local” – panels from Helios.

“We’re trying to build a stronger community and so they’re a local business and so I feel good about supporting their work.”

Even though he has lost their 25-year warranty, Jerbi remains unwavering.

“For our family there’s a huge social investment. We want to be using solar for the sake of our children and so yeah, we’re looking to lose our investment on this, clearly, but at this point, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Electrician Nick Matthes installed Jerbi’s solar system and the others in Riverwest. Matthes says rigging up locally produced panels gave him a warm fuzzy feeling, but there are other places to turn.

“You can source all of your products, really good quality, U.S. owned and manufactured solar panels, solar modules.”

Matthes says prices for installing a system are half that of five years ago, so industry momentum should continue.

The Bay View resident feels the stars aligned this job just across town landed at his feet. His crew’s next assignment won’t be so close to home.

“We’re going to be doing a bit more traveling out in Iowa and Minnesota. They’ve got a little more hospitable climate for renewables right now than Wisconsin does.”

That’s putting it mildly, according to Michael Vickerman. He’s policy director of the group Renew Wisconsin. It pushes renewable energy.

“In just about every state you can name, solar installations are rising, in some cases very rapidly. “

Vickerman says right now Wisconsin and Minnesota stand shoulder to shoulder in the amount of solar on the grid. But he says Minnesota just passed a solar-friendly law that should dramatically tip the balance in its favor.

“By the end of 2020, the installed capacity should increase by a multiple of thirty.”

That’s a 30-fold increase in Minnesota, Vickerman says versus a meager doubling in Wisconsin.

He says one factor at play here, is the Public Service Commission just announced its decision to suspend Focus on Energy for residential systems, for the remainder of 2013. The program offers incentives to homeowners who install renewable energy, such as solar.

“The number of installations peaked in 2011; that happens to coincide with the maximum funding availability from Focus on Energy.”

Vickerman calls Milwaukee’s solar initiative a bright spot.

Milwaukee Shines plans to put energy into another “solar neighborhood” installation early next year.

Meanwhile, in a matter of weeks, Helios’ high-tech solar panel fabrication equipment will hit the auction block.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.