In recent years we’ve rediscovered the value of locally grown food. We see the strength of the local food movement in farmers’ markets and in thousands of backyard and community gardens. We need a similar momentum to harvest local energy, a movement that will make the energy provided by sunlight accessible to all.
Like locally grown food, locally produced energy offers many benefits- efficiency and self-sufficiency, resilience, and better health. According to Inside Energy, eight percent of electricity produced in Wisconsin is lost in transmission and distribution. Producing electricity on a nearby rooftop, closer to where it will be used, reduces this waste by reducing the distance traveled. A distributed network of locally produced energy can also make our energy infrastructure more resilient and less vulnerable to extreme weather.
Given the increasing frequency and severity of storms, microgrids, powered by local solar installations and incorporating storage capacity, could be configured to provide power when the larger grid is damaged. In addition, the harvest of sunshine that falls on Wisconsin will limit the loss of twelve billion dollars a year that leaves the state to pay for fossil fuels. Most significantly, the transporting and burning of coal has been a slow-moving, far-reaching disaster in terms of public health and our environment.
Solar panels offer a more benign alternative.
Already large-scale solar installations in Southeastern Wisconsin by companies like Ikea demonstrate the value of locally produced, renewable energy and prove that such efforts are economically viable alternatives to centralized energy production. At this time, Foxconn and WE Energies are in discussion about building an array that is 60 to 90 times the size of Ikea’s Oak Creek installation, the largest commercial array in the state. While more and more homeowners and small businesses are also participating in this transition to locally produced energy, many are prevented from installing solar due to shading, the orientation of their rooftop, or more likely, the initial cost though in the long-term consumer-generated power will be much less expensive than the price of electricity provided by a utility.
In many parts of the country, and in other parts of our state not serviced by WE Energies, community solar projects have allowed individuals who can’t install on their own house to own panels elsewhere, on a nearby school or business for instance. The electricity produced from the panels purchased is deducted from their energy bill. Community solar farms, and their many variations are common in other states but the Wisconsin Public Service Commission allows (the state’s) utilities to set their own rules (rather than serving the public interest) and WE Energies has chosen to disallow community solar in its territory. A change in such policies would make locally produced energy accessible to many more people in our area.
Several years ago, both the solar and fossil fuel industries watched Wisconsin as WE Energies tried to slow the momentum of renewable energy by proposing what amounted to a 30 percent tax on renewable energy co-generated by their customers, a tax that was eventually denied by a court ruling that said that such systems were a benefit, not a burden to the electrical grid. At the same time, WE Energies raised the fixed rate for all customers, reducing incentives for energy efficiency and for producing local energy.
In the past several months WE Energies has announced that they will build large solar farms as part of the new goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Clearly, these are steps in the right direction, but the reality is that this new target means that for the next thirty years WE Energies will still be burning a lot of coal, more than most states with the more ambitious adoption of renewables.
Explaining this new turn toward large-scale solar projects, Gale Klappa, chairman and CEO of WEC Energy Group, has stated that utility-scale solar is now a viable option, not only because prices have fallen dramatically, but also because solar energy can “better balance our energy supply with our customer demand”, …and “ help reduce power supply costs and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”
All of these stated benefits apply to smaller scale solar installations as well.
Embracing utility-scale solar while limiting smaller scale installations makes perfect sense for a utility that operates as a regulated monopoly, particularly one determined to recover its assets sunk in one of the last of America’s large coal plants to be built. For the rest of us, it represents lost time and opportunity.
The temperatures and the seas are rising. We need to deploy renewable energy as quickly and widely as possible and to use a variety of strategies to do so. We need a utility that can more quickly adapt to new possibilities and technologies and use its great resources to promote rather than obstruct the many forms of a clean energy transition.
Tom Rutkowski is the chair of the Southeast Gateway Group of the Sierra Club, an organizer of the Southeast Wisconsin Solar Group Buy, and a member of the Clean Power Coalition of Southeast Wisconsin.
Editor’s Note: This opinion piece reflects the writer’s opinion and does not reflect the opinion of this news website.
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