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MATC seeks bids for 6-acre Milwaukee solar farm

Sean Ryan
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The Milwaukee Area Technical College needs more public money to realize its plan of building a 6-acre solar farm in Milwaukee.

The college wants to build solar cells to replace a parking lot on a property known as the “blue hole,” which is north of the intersection of Capitol Drive and Humboldt Boulevard on the west side of the Milwaukee River.

The college is accepting proposals until May 12 from developers interested in partnering on the effort.

But the substantial construction cost of a solar farm means MATC will rely on federal, state and utility grants to pay for the project, said John Stilp, vice president of the college’s Oak Creek campus. It is unlikely existing grant programs will raise enough to pay for the project, he said.

“Obviously we want to get as much of the project financed from outside sources as possible,” he said.

“That’s like a moving target. The thought is with the new federal administration taking a stronger focus, the feds may open some new opportunities.”

The MATC project is too large to qualify for state Focus on Energy grants but could chase utility grant programs and federal tax credits, said Don Wichert, Focus on Energy director.

A We Energies program supporting solar projects will be a cornerstone of the MATC project budget, Stilp said. He said the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin should let utilities charge higher rates in exchange for raising more money for solar projects.

“The key is that the state has got to up the credits to spur the investment,” Stilp said. “Now all of the money that was allocated for that is all used up.”

We Energies offered a program giving money to owners of solar cells. Last year, the utility maxed out the available money for the program, which offered 22.5 cents a year for 10 years for every kilowatt-hour of solar power produced, said Brian Manthey, We Energies spokesman. The utility committed to spend $12 million on renewable energy in 2010 and 2011 but has not determined how to split the money and whether the solar program will be included, he said. The program is not available this year.

This year We Energies created a new program to fill the gap by offering 75 cents per kilowatt-hour for a solar facility’s first year of operation, Manthey said.

Environmental groups are urging utilities to dedicate more ratepayer money to programs promoting solar projects, said Michael Vickerman, executive director of Renew Wisconsin Inc. Increasing rates to pay for solar projects raises objections from industrial groups, such as the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group Inc. and the Wisconsin Cast Metals Association, Vickerman said. But it also creates construction opportunities such as the one proposed by MATC, he said.

“You will get a renewable energy landscape that will reflect our budget situation,” Vickerman said. “The way to get around that, and certainly the one that appeals to us, is higher buyback rates.”

Stilp said the request for proposals MATC released this week is only the first step. The financial outlook, and the possibility of MATC having a private developer control the project, will become clearer after the college selects a partner and has the company assess the site to gauge its potential to generate power, he said.

“We’ll look at that once we know what the final cost is,” Stilp said. “The key is going to be the initial investment because the cost will be quite high.”

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