Solar Rising

More and more northeast Wisconsin companies make the business case to invest in renewable energies

Story by J.S. Decker

The gold growing on rooftops is high-tech treasure in high demand. Wisconsin solar energy output surged 40 percent in 2015 as business owners see investments guaranteed to cut costs.

Federal tax incentives and Wisconsin Focus on Energy grants help the business case for clean energy make more sense, with each program covering up to 30 percent of a project’s cost. Impressive as that may sound, neighboring states offer even stronger incentives and what some would call a more welcoming environment.

The technology itself behind solar still gets less expensive and more efficient every year, and the Dairy State is expected to see even more solar growth in 2016.

“The cost of installing solar has dropped by over 50 percent in the last five years,” said Jim Funk, owner of Energize LLC in Winneconne. His company has installed solar systems for various companies across Wisconsin and outside of the state for the past 14 years. “For a commercial system, the likelihood is you would be in the area of five years to get your money back out of the system.”

Small wind turbines stand out visibly as another source of generating renewable energy, but it’s been almost a decade since that technology was left in the shadow of solar. But the larger the wind turbine, the higher the payoff, and large-scale wind turbines remain the most cost-effective clean energy of all.

Striving for energy independence

Industrial-grade door and frame manufacturer Corrim Company in Oshkosh hired nearby Renewegy in 2010 to install five wind turbines, and late last year completed installation of 260 solar panels on the lawn behind its facility. Wind captured by 20-kilowatt turbines powers more than 25 percent of the energy used to shape fiberglass into fireproof doors and frames. The new 92 kW solar system pushes Corrim’s energy independence to 60 percent.

“If I can bring down my costs, I can be more competitive and sell more doors,” said Bob Gluth, president and owner of Corrim. “The decision was crystal clear with the solar panels. We had extra cash. If it’s in the bank, what does it do for you? Nothing.”

Solar panels valued at $223,000 cost Corrim only $114,000 after a Focus on Energy grant covered $60,000 and federal tax credits cut another 30 percent. Installation of the wind turbines six years ago cost $193,000 with the same incentives covering 60 percent. Some benefits can’t necessarily be measured in dollars and cents.

“It helps as we recruit employees,” Gluth said. “People like to work for a progressive company.”

Other benefits come in simple, hard numbers, said John Morelli, national sales manager for Corrim. Its corrosion and fire-resistant industrial doors require virgin materials for top quality, so Corrim finds other paths to reduce its carbon footprint. That’s an expectation in the construction industry. Renewable energy, Morelli said, “really helps when we’re selling to an architectural firm, to show how environmentally-friendly our product is.”

Gluth added, “Sometimes we do something just because it’s the right thing to do.”

When Corrim’s industrial facility expanded in 2009, Gluth decided to heat the offices with a geothermal system. Without ever calculating the payback, the company drilled seven wells to 275 feet for fluids to reach deep into the Earth and collect heat in winter and cold during summer. Pumps draw that fluid into the building, where the heat or cold transfers into traditional air ducts. No servicing is required, said Morelli, other than occasionally changing the air filters.

Hampered by new energy policies

After daily operations shut down at 2 p.m., the electricity generated out back from the wind turbines and solar farm goes into the power grid, generating revenue for Corrim and further trimming its utility bills. Gluth laments how changes to utility billing policies have reduced the value of each extra watt.

“Until recently it was net metering,” he recalled. “When we went into the grid, the meter actually ran backwards. Under the new tariff it’s not as advantageous.” Gluth acknowledged he understands both sides of the debate. “Why should utilities pay me more for the energy than it costs them to generate during peak or non-peak times? Conversely, should clean energy be worth more?”

Two years ago the per-kilowatt hour cost dropped, but the Public Service Commission allowed utilities to charge each user a fixed fee. That fee gets paid even if a customer’s solar and wind systems create more electricity than they ever use. As a spokesperson for an investor-owned utility explained, renewable energy users are paying their fair share to maintain the infrastructure that benefits everyone. Clean energy advocates claim it protects profits by stifling renewable alternatives to coal.

According to the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council, the state burned less coal in 2014 than it did in 2012, but is still the 10th most coal-dependent state in the country. The standard cost for electricity in Wisconsin has risen 50 percent over the last ten years, largely to pay for new power plants and modern transmission lines. Residential customers paid the 13th highest rates in the country last year, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Other projects help build momentum

Solar power’s surge in Wisconsin is eclipsed by growth elsewhere. A comparison by Clean Energy Authority indicates that neighboring states offer stronger incentives to convert to renewable power, adding that Wisconsin gives strong support to improve energy efficiency and increase insulation of homes and businesses.

One new incentive launched in July 2015 eliminates Wisconsin sales tax on solar, wind and anaerobic digestion systems that produce 200 watts per day.

The Forest County Potawatomi installed solar panels at 15 locations around Crandon and Milwaukee during 2015 to produce 922 kilowatts, giving it the distinction of having the largest solar installation in Wisconsin.

The state’s 13th largest installation is also the largest in the Fox Cities – the 128.5 kW system on top of the Neenah headquarters of Jewelers Mutual Insurance Company. Those 408 solar panels installed at the end of 2015 create a system three times larger than the previous largest solar panel farm in the Fox Cities at the City of Neenah Services Building on Tullar Road. All three projects took advantage of federal and state incentives.

Founded in 1913, Jeweler’s Mutual is the only insurer dedicated solely to serving the U.S. jewelry industry.

“We know the importance of taking steps to protect the environment,” said Jewelers Mutual CEO and President Scott Murphy. Within 25 years he expects solar power to save the insurance carrier $750,000. “The system has a life expectancy between 30 and 50 years, providing additional savings well in to the future.”

Just across Interstate 41 to the south stand five wind turbines erected by Menasha Corp. nearly five years ago. Menasha Corp. Director of Sustainability and Sourcing Morgan Wiswall indicated sustainable projects fall under the company’s 20/20 Vision, “Which is a company wide goal established in 2010 to reduce CO2 emissions per pound of production by 20 percent by the year 2020,” Wiswall said.

Manufacturing the company’s offering of corrugated packaging is more efficient and eco-friendly than ever, Wiswall said, but spinning blades towering over the freeway have the highest profile of all.

“I think we underestimated the very favorable reaction our customers had when they learned that we were taking a leadership position on renewable energy and environmental improvement and values,” he said.

Also in Neenah, Evergreen Credit Union installed a 56 kW solar system last year. In Oshkosh, Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel installed a 20 kW solar array in late 2014 with support from its partner in the UW Oshkosh Foundation.

At the Congregation of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, Sr. Susan Seeby said the 880 panels installed last year generated $35,000 worth of electricity. The system is much larger than originally planned thanks to a $172,700 grant from Focus on Energy, and a clean path for stewards of the land on County Highway K.

“We have cared for the soil, tended the woods, and preserved the integrity of the springs that flow through the Congregation’s property in Fond du Lac. This project represents CSA’s corporate commitment to future generations and comes at a time when Pope Francis is calling upon the church, and the world, to take seriously the threat posed to our human dignity from the effects of climate change,” Sr. Seeby said.

The Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Green Bay installed 416 panels in 2014. Within one year the array had converted enough sunshine into electricity to provide the Motherhouse with nearly 29 percent of its electrical needs, saving $13,000 and negating 92 tons of carbon emissions.

Contributors to growth

Back in Neenah, the city’s Superintendent of Public Works Rick Freese said the 260 feet of solar panels along the City Services Building have performed strongly since 2011.

“We had a couple of fuses blow, but that’s minor. We’re pretty happy with them,” he stated.

Funk’s Energize LLC installed that system, as well as the new array atop Jewelers Mutual. Funk launched Energize 14 years ago, and has never seen more competitors than he saw file into the garage six years ago to compete for the bid to install the city’s array of solar panels. More than 20 firms put in bids for that project.

What was a small sector even a decade ago has taken off as the price of solar panels dropped. Converters are more efficient, and energy optimizers smooth out losses when one panel is shaded and another isn’t. Additionally, Funk noted, the golden part of every solar panel is made of the same raw materials as electronics components. As demand for flat screen televisions and cell phones led to more raw materials being available, the price of solar panels dropped.

Since electronics perform better in cold temperatures, Wisconsin customers have somewhat of an advantage.

“Heat is kind of the enemy of electronics,” Funk explained. “Even though the Southwest has a lot more sun, they have the disadvantage of high temperatures.”

Teaching at workshops for WE Energy and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, Funk helps potential customers evaluate which product might fit their site best. Midwest Renewable hosts the nation’s largest renewable energy convention every June near Stevens Point. What Doug Stingle, development director for Midwest Renewable, calls a “monumental shift” toward solar can be largely credited to President George W. Bush. In 2006 he approved the 30 percent tax credit for solar arrays.

“Congress passed a five-year extension late last year,” Stingle said. “It’s 30 percent for the first three years, then slight declines, and then eliminated after five years.”

Like many others, Stingle is hopeful that credit will be renewed and joined by others, ensuring that renewable investment will always make good business sense.  n

J.S. Decker is a writer and editor based in Oshkosh.