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Possible Rate Hikes Cast Cloud on Future of Milwaukee's Solar Program

S Bence

One bright spot the City of Milwaukee points to in its move to achieve environmental sustainability is its solar program.  
It’s called Milwaukee Shines, and it’s been gaining traction through neighborhood group buys. Mayor Tom Barrett sang its praises Wednesday afternoon, outside a garage holding a dozen solar panels, on North 80th Street.

Chris and Ellie Eichman are the homeowners. Their five-month old daughter amuses herself gazing at toys dangling above her head in her cozy Milwaukee home.

Dad Chris says he’s happy to cut his lunch short, to share his passion for solar. He says one big reason is cooing next to him. Eichman says he and his wife want to their daughter’s world to be sustainable.

One of their first steps was purchasing an electric car.

Credit S Bence

“I was really interested in the car. It took a little while longer to convince my wife, Ellie,” Eichman says.

Chris says theirs is the first Nissan Leaf purchased in Wisconsin. Ellie has grown to love it and is its primary driver. Chris says installing solar was a far easier sell, after the car arrived.

"It didn’t make sense to us to charge it using coal – we really wanted to do as much as we could to be as green as possible,” Eichman says.

So the Eichman’s installed 12 solar panels atop their garage. The purchase pre-dated the city’s neighborhood buy-in program, but its sustainability office helped them cut costs.

“Milwaukee Shines had a program through Summit Credit Union, through their loan program and we had a tax credit at the same time. So in the end, that was 30 percent of the cost of the unit,” Eichman says.

The couple says its three-kilowatt system produces twice the energy they need to recharge their car.

“As far as our house costs, it really depends on how much sun and the month. Some months we have a $5 bill; some months it’s just your standard $100 to $150 bill,” Eichman says.

By the time Mayor Barrett arrived, rain pounded the tent erected to show off Eichman’s panels and plugged in car.

The mayor’s spirits weren’t dampened. He reported substantial solar growth on home and small business rooftops around the city.

“We’re here to do two things to celebrate a solar milestone and also to make an exciting announcement about our program. Milwaukee Shines is helping to make solar a reality for residents across the entire city. A record number of installations are hitting Milwaukee rooftops this summer and the momentum is building,” Barrett says.

Installers erected 30 solar installations in 2013.

“But what’s even more impressive is that we’ve beaten that record during the first half of this year. We already have 35 homeowners who have added solar over this summer as part of the neighborhood group buy program,” Barrett says.

Barrett says the program drives down consumer utility costs without dipping into city funds. Initial savings come, in part, when residents purchase panels in bulk, for multiple projects.

“The neighborhood comes together, they get that marketing power and they can lower the cost. Think of a Costco. It’s the Costco of solar. The more people that participate, the lower the cost,” Barrett says.

Credit S Bence
Diana Jimenez hopes to participate in City's neighborhood Solar Group Buy Program.

Diana Jimenez is on a mission at the soggy press conference. She learned that Milwaukee’s neighborhood solar program plans to reach out to the north and south sides.

“I live on 20th Street; it’s near Wilson Park,” Jimenez says.

So Jimenez drove over with her lively two and four year olds. She stayed long enough to pick up a brochure and figure out when she can attend a neighborhood information session.

The mom says last year she insulated their home. Now she’s exploring solar because – in her mind – it would be a healthy energy step.

“The number one is for safe energy; save the planet for my kids and save the bills,” Jimenez says.

Jimenez says she plans to share the information with her friends and at her son’s neighborhood school.

The numbers could change.

WE Energies is proposing a surcharge, starting in 2015, for customers who own solar installations.The Public Service Commission is reviewing the proposal and has slated a public hearing in Milwaukee for early October.

We’ll be reporting on the pros and cons.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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