Solar Gain in Wisconsin

by Phil Anderson

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” Thomas Edison in 1910.  

“A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.” President Jimmy Carter in 1979 dedicating 32 solar panels to provide hot water to the White House.  

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the value of solar energy. People have known about the usefulness of solar energy for a long time. Human beings have been harnessing the power of the sun for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations knew about building and positioning dwellings to take advantage of solar heating. Thomas Edison believed that sunshine, wind, and tides should be employed to generate energy. Passive solar hot air heaters were made in the 1880s. In 1891 the first commercial solar hot water heater was developed. These were widely used in the 1920 to 1940s. In 1954 three Bell Laboratories scientists developed a solar cell that could convert enough solar energy into electricity to run electrical equipment. At the time there were predictions that solar cells would “provide more power than all the world’s coal, oil and uranium.”   Ironically it did take rocket scientists and the Cold War – with infusions of tax dollars into the military-industrial complex – to launch the solar power industry. It was military uses, specifically satellites and the space race, that drove the development of photovoltaics. George Porter, a British scientist who studied photosynthesis, once said,  

“If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago.”  

He was mostly correct. When sunbeams became useful for war, we made advances in solar energy technologies.  

But widespread civilian use of solar energy was slow to develop. As President Carter suggested in 1979, solar energy remained largely a “curiosity” and a “path not taken.” For decades there have been a few forward thinkers who went off grid with solar and wind. Some in our area have proven it works even in northern climates. But there has been no “exciting adventures” – no Manhattan Project or Apollo Program – to excite people or fundamentally change our dependence on fossil fuels.  

President Jimmy Carter's vision for clean, renewable energy was far ahead of the times. Reacting to the 1973 oil embargo crisis, his administration set a goal of getting 20 percent of U.S. energy needs from renewable sources by 2000. But in 1980 President Ronald Reagan reversed course, took down Carter's solar panels, and cut the budget for renewable research (a classic case of Republican ideology being shortsighted and harmful). As a result in 2018 only 11% of our total energy consumption came from renewable sources including hydroelectric power. Wind supplied only 5.5% and solar only 1.3% of domestic electricity.      

But things are changing. Solar and wind are finally gaining more acceptance. The reason is that solar and wind are now cheaper than other sources of energy. Unfortunately, in our greed driven economic system money is everything. Cheaper is all that matters. What is better for people, the planet, or the future is irrelevant. Now that the price of wind and solar has come down it has finally become attractive to big business and utility companies.      

In Wisconsin solar projects are happening all over the state. The Badger Hollow Solar Farm in Iowa County will generate 300 megawatts of power using 3500 acres. According to the developer, this is enough to power 77,100 homes and will replace 370,000 tons of power plant carbon emissions. Milwaukee based WE Energies and Madison Gas and Electric are buying the power. They say the lower costs will save their customers $46 million over the 30 year life of the project.  

In Manitowoc County the Two Creeks Solar Park began construction in August. When completed it will have 500,000 solar panels on 800 acres. It will generate 150 megawatts. Madison Gas and Electric and Wisconsin Public Service are the utility companies funding this project.  

Not all solar projects are large. In 2014, Vernon Electric Cooperative, in western Wisconsin, completed a 305 kilowatt solar farm. This generates enough power for about 30 homes at a lower cost than individual home owners could achieve with rooftop installations. But the array is not hooked up to individual homes. The power goes into the coop's regular grid. Individual members of the coop purchased solar panels for the project. They receive credit off their power bills for the power generated by their solar panels. The community solar farm arrangement allows people to benefit from owning solar panels at lower cost and without any installation of maintenance issues. The coop also saved money by building the project in cooperation with Dairyland Power Cooperative who installed a 520 kilowatt array on the same property using the same contractor.  

Even tiny La Pointe, Wisconsin on Madeline Island is joining the movement. They now have a 18.2-kilowatt solar array that produces enough energy to power two of the town's municipal buildings.   Solar and wind are proven technologies. They are now cost effective and they reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Wind and solar power are clean energy. There are no coal strip mines or nuclear waste problems. There is no natural gas fracking that pollutes huge amounts or water and causes earth quakes. There are no oil refineries to blow up and threaten communities. There are no oil spills. As a bumper stick I have seen says,  

“When you have a big spill of solar energy it's called a nice day. ”  

How much better off would we be if the the country had followed the vision and leadership of Jimmy Carter? Solar power is a case of better late than never. After six decades of foot dragging and opposition from the powerful fossil fuel interests, we are slowly moving in the right direction.  

So why is a new power plant fueled by fracked natural gas being built in Superior? Something to think about on a cold winter day.