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Solar Farm Coming to Mitchell International Airport?

S Bence

Milwaukee County supervisors voted (16-2) Thursday to study the feasibility of installing solar panels at the airport. 
Milwaukee County unanimously adopted the GREEN PRINT program in 2007 to promote energy efficiency. Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic now wants county government to take another step. She maintains Mitchell International is a logical target for a solar farm.

"It’s an entity that working pretty much all around the clock and using a lot of energy. So it’s opportune considering that there’s large pieces of land that have to remain unobstructed and not developed that we could use this for a possible solar farm," Dimitrijevic says.

Dimitrijevic says she draws inspiration from a 75-acre project at the Indianapolis airport. The panels soak up enough rays to power 1,800 homes. "I believe they consider themselves the largest solar farm in the nation. But it’s been very successful," Dimitrijevic says.

The board chair doesn’t need to convince electrician Nick Matthes. He specializes in solar energy.

Credit S Bence
Electrician Nick Matthes envisions both construction and permanent jobs if solar farm comes to life at airport.

From the edge of Mitchell International looking south, Matthes says the sky’s the limit for solar potential here.

"There’s a fair chunk of land to the east there and there’s plenty of land to the south too. I’m not sure exactly where the boundaries are, but I’d look for any open area that’s not subject to much traffic," Matthes.

Much of the land is vacant – for safety reasons.

While the plan before the board concerns solar panels on the ground, Matthes says a site assessment could determine whether they could also sit atop the terminal buildings.

"One of the main things you want to look at is the underlying strength of the structure and see how well it’s going to be able to take the extra weight," Matthes says.

Matthes says rooftop installations stand to improve energy efficiency.

"Solar hot water is nicer to produce close to where you’re using it so you don’t have the heat loss; with solar electric you can put it out in the field there because you’re going to be producing enough voltage you losses are going to be minimal transporting it back to the building where you’re using it," Matthes says.

Matthes says Milwaukee would have to look no farther than Ingeteam in the Menomonee Valley to purchase the inverters a solar installation would require.

Those locally-made components won’t necessarily make it easier for the county to finance a solar farm at the airport, according to Karl Rabago. He served on energy matters for the Clinton administration and now consults.

Rabago says Milwaukee County might consider partnering with private developers because they can take advantage of state and federal tax breaks.

"There are federal tax credits available; the state has a property tax exemption for solar systems, it has sales tax exemption. A smart private developer might figure out a way to make this into basically a private presence on public land," Rabago says.

There is no blueprint yet for financing or managing a solar installation on vacant acres at Mitchell International, but Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic hopes to convince her colleagues to explore the possibility.

"The price of building them has gone down significantly – almost 35 percent over the last few years – so now is the time to get in the business, stimulate the local economy, provide green jobs and provide green energy," Dimitrijevic says.

The first step will be to hire a consultant  who will  lay out the costs and benefits of a solar project.  If it is to become a reality, Miliwaukee County would also have to make arrangements with its current power supplier - We Energies.

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.