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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Three Efforts That Showcase Wisconsin's Solar Energy Expansion

SunVest Solar, Inc.

Pewaukee-based developer Matt Neumann admits he might appear to be an unlikely advocate for solar energy. His political roots are deep, and conservative.

“When I got into solar, I found myself in the extreme minority of Republicans or conservatives who thought solar was a good idea. As a matter of fact, a lot of people thought I was crazy," Neumann explains. "Now we’re cost-competitive, and Republicans and Democrats agree that they want to do the right thing for the environment.”

Tyler Huebner, with RENEW Wisconsin, agrees the politics around renewable energy are changing. “And one of the reasons," he explains, "is job growth."

The 2016 National Solar Jobs Census reports more than 260,000 jobs nationwide are related to solar energy, with Wisconsin being home to nearly 3,000.

“That’s grown over 20 percent per year for the last three or four years…a low-cost resource that creates a lot of jobs, I think all politicians agree that is a good thing,” Huebner explains.

And solar is expanding in different ways across the state – from a solar subdivision in New Berlin, to residents participating in group solar buys in Wauwatosa, to places of worship installing panels.

New Berlin's Solar Subdivision

Credit SunVest Solar, Inc.
Matt Neumann (third from the left) at the groundbreaking for the solar subdivision.

Right now, the 32-acre former farm field at the corner of Sunnyslope Road and Grange Avenue in New Berlin looks more like a playground for heavy equipment than a neighborhood. But when the project is complete, there'll be 34 new homes here, all decked out with solar panels.

Each home in Wisconsin's first "net-zero" solar subdivision is being designed to fully offset its annual electrical consumption using clean, renewable energy.

Developer Matt Neumann says not only will the homes run on solar, but crews will also build energy efficiencies into them – from high-efficiency furnaces to hot water recirculation systems.

Credit SunVest Solar, Inc.
A solar subdivision in the making.

Twenty-five to 30 solar panels will hug each new home’s rooftop. “That’s about what a normal house of these sizes is going to consume,” he explains.

Neumann calls the project a leap of faith. “This isn’t just going a little bit green, this is really taking a big step."

But interest in Wisconsin's first solar subdivision is percolating. “We are at about 9 contracts out of 34, and we have not yet put a basement in the ground,” he says.

He says the math is compelling. Eight years ago when Neumann started installing solar panels on homes, projects cost up to $80,000. Today, the price tag has dropped by at least 70 percent.

Buyers are making an investment, he explains. “It’s different than a granite countertop or a wood floor upgrade. If you invest this $10,000 or $15,000, you can earn a 15 percent return on that investment over the life of you owning this home."

Group Solar Buys for Residents

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
The McClellans say they want to be part of doing something good for the environment.

Jill and Mark McClellan’s Wauwatosa home is part of Wisconsin’s solar scene.

They are among a growing number of families jumping onto a “group buy” movement. By signing on with other homeowners, the McClellans were able to pay less for materials and installation. The solar company handles the paperwork and give group buyers a rebate.

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association along with The City of Milwaukee's Milwaukee Shines program, have taken the lead in coordinating multiple group buys.

“We used to do it neighborhood by neighborhood. But we got a lot of requests from people all over the city, so we started launching citywide...And then last year, we partnered with Shorewood because they were interested in doing a solar group buy -- and that’s what we did with Wauwatosa this year,” says Elizabeth Hittman, Milwaukee's Sustainability Program Coordinator.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
The McClellan family.

Jill McClellan says she’s delighted with the 12 solar panels installed on her Wauwatosa rooftop. “I feel really good about it," she explains. "We had wanted it for a long time. We bought a Chevy Volt this past spring, so we cut down our gas usage by a lot. And then the solar group buy really helped us pull the trigger."

The McClellan’s home is not perfectly situated to generate solar power - part of their south-facing rooftop is shaded by a large tree. Still, Jill says they didn’t want to give up.

“I want to do something positive and [our panels] should produce almost half of the energy that we [use]," she explains. "It doesn’t produce everything, but it cuts our electricity bill...and we place that much less demand on the grid, which we’re very happy about."

Bringing Solar to Places of Worship

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
On a Sunday in August Huda Alkaff spread her Solar & Faith message at an Ozaukee County church and later, here, at Alice's Garden Urban Farm in Milwaukee.

Huda Alkaff is using the "group buy" model to inspire congregations to install panels through a program she's dubbed Faith & Solar.

Alkaff is founder of Wisconsin Green Muslims, and says advocating for renewable energy is a natural extension of her faith. She is a tireless ambassador. Over the last year, she has addressed more than 40 groups representing a rainbow of faiths, focusing first on southeastern Wisconsin.

“Actually, today I was giving a presentation in Ozaukee County at a church there and they’re very interested," she explains.

Alkaff sets up free assessments to figure out if sites are suitable for solar, and structural assessments to make sure rooftops can carry the load. She then helps places of worship connect with the grants and rebates to help finance the projects.

READ: Wisconsin Businessman Creates Fund To Help Nonprofits Go Solar

“We are tapping into the unifying power of solar energy," Alkaff beams. "It brings people together from all different backgrounds, whether it’s social or political or faith."

Her diligence is paying off: she just learned a Unitarian congregation in Waukesha voted to move forward with a solar project.

What's Ahead: More Solar, More Energy

Credit RENEW Wisconsin
Solar installations in Wisconsin through 2015. The count at that time was 2,129 projects. Over 3,000 projects will be in place by the end of 2017.

By the end of 2017, Wisconsin will reach 85 megawatts of solar energy capacity. That’s enough to power 11,500 households. This is about seven times more solar energy than Wisconsin had five years ago,  Tyler Huebner notes.

RENEW Wisconsin predicts more households, businesses and nonprofits will go solar.

In the meantime, the advocacy group is negotiating with utilities around the state to fine tune how customers are charged and get credit.

“Making sure that the policies around that are fair and that they provide a good value for customers who make their own power,” Huebner says.

He says nationwide conversations are underway exploring how large businesses can directly partner with utilities to build renewable projects to power companies’ operations.

“So we’re looking at doing that in Wisconsin as well,” Huebner says.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.