Dane County Solar Industry Faring Better Than The State Of Wisconsin

Feb 15, 2016 11:59:00 AM

February 11, 2016 - InBusiness Magazine: 

Wisconsin’s overall solar grade is partly cloudy, but Dane County is seeing sunny skies.

With all due respect to a true Madison original, Timbuk3, Wisconsin’s solar energy future has the potential to be bright, but outside of Dane, Milwaukee, and Waukesha counties no one in the Badger state has gotta wear shades — at least not yet.

That’s according to the most recent state-by-state results of the Solar Foundation’s annual “Solar Jobs Census.”

Nationally, the solar industry grew at a 20% clip to more than 208,000 workers in 2015. The report shows there are now three times as many solar workers nationally as coal workers. Wisconsin’s solar industry employs 1,941 workers according to the Census, across installation, manufacturing, sales and distribution, project development, and related sector employment. That places Wisconsin 26th nationally for the number of solar jobs in the state, and 27th nationally in solar jobs per capita — firmly middle of the pack.

Milwaukee, Waukesha, and Dane counties are the three counties with the largest number of solar jobs. Installation jobs in these three counties account for over half of the total in Wisconsin.

In particular, Dane County’s solar outlook is very strong, notes Tyler Huebner, RENEW Wisconsin’s executive director. With the cost of installing solar down 50% in the last five years, more and more businesses, nonprofits, and homeowners are installing solar.

“From Holy Wisdom Monastery to Ale Asylum brewery* to Central Storage & Warehouse Co* to community-supported agriculture farms, solar is growing in Dane County,” Huebner says. “The City of Madison is working with RENEW Wisconsin and Summit Credit Union to launch a new solar loan program in 2016 for city residents, and the city will also be launching a “group purchase” solar program to encourage more homes to go solar in 2016. And the Dane County and City of Madison governments continue to invest in solar on their facilities.”

Huebner says Dane County is lucky to have a strong and competitive solar installation industry with a number of small businesses offering excellent products and services. But while the county’s solar industry is doing well enough now, expanding the solar marketplace would enable these small businesses to grow and bring more investment into the Dane County economy.

“The Solar Census helps us understand why some states are leaders in solar and others are behind,” notes Huebner. “The biggest factor in whether solar is thriving or not is state and utility policies, rules, and regulations. As a state, Wisconsin could choose to use the solar industry as an economic development engine and put in place policies that make it easier and cheaper for everyone to go solar, such as allowing easy financing through solar leases, and cutting red tape to save time and money in the installation process. The best way to create jobs is to build a strong market, and the right energy policies are needed to grow the solar market.”

According to Huebner, Dane County’s current solar jobs are mostly in small businesses, which provide the best platform for job creation. In addition, most of the area’s solar workers both live and work in Dane County, meaning the investments in solar projects keep dollars in the local economy. And the dollar savings on energy bills for homes and businesses enable more dollars to be available for spending in other areas of the local economy, such as retail stores and restaurants.

“Solar energy is a job-creation engine,” says Huebner. “While Wisconsin’s solar industry employment is holding steady, nationally the solar industry grew by 20% for the third straight year. In Wisconsin we are not fully harnessing solar energy’s job creation and economic development opportunities to move Wisconsin forward. Wisconsin’s economy will benefit from improved rules and regulations to unlock solar energy’s true potential — rules like better net metering policies, clarifying third-party ownership (solar leasing), and interconnection policies that govern how simple it is for a home or business to connect solar to the local utility grid.”

Making the grade

It’s interconnection policies and net metering where Wisconsin is particularly lagging behind other states, according to the Solar Census. In those area’s Wisconsin is only managing a “D” grade.

In simple terms, Wisconsin’s “D” grade for interconnection means that solar installations cost more and take longer than they do in states with “A” policies, Huebner explains.

Net metering is the key policy that determines how a customer who “goes solar” will be credited for making more power at certain times of the day or year. Good net metering policy allows much larger systems to utilize net metering — for example, in California systems 10 times larger can use net metering (1,000 kilowatt systems) whereas MG&E has a 100-kilowatt limit and Alliant Energy has a 20-kilowatt limit. In addition, good net metering would ensure that all the benefits of distributed solar are accounted for and credited to customers, according to Huebner.

One bright spot for the statewide solar industry — while more modest than recent national growth, Wisconsin is projected to add 148 new solar workers statewide in 2016, representing 7.6% growth over 2015, according to the Solar Census.

That tracks with Huebner’s assessment of Wisconsin’s solar fortunes.

“The Wisconsin solar industry is poised for growth, and proactive policy changes would enable us to grow the market substantially,” he says. “Solar energy and other renewable energy sources are going to grow nationally at increasing rates as we transition from centralized power plants to decentralized solar, wind, hydro, and biomass energy. Wisconsin has the opportunity to jump in and use this industry growth as a way to grow our state and local economies, while keeping more of our state’s energy expenditures here in Wisconsin.”

This article was written by Jason Busch for InBusiness magazine.

*Ale Asylum and Central Storage Warehouse are solar customers with SunPeak.