Wisconsin planners are either getting a head start on solar power or wasting their time studying an expensive technology that cannot compete in the renewable energy market.
“It’s great that Wisconsin is taking a leadership role in investigating solar power because wind is not going to solve everything,” said Greg Watkins, renewable energy planner for the Iowa Office of Energy Independence. “But I think it’ll be a long time, if ever, before we’ll see a utility-scale solar project.”
Midwest states already are taking advantage of wind power to pad renewable energy portfolios, and, with electricity costs already lower than on the east or west coasts, solar power simply might be too expensive, Watkins said.
“I think it could be seven to 10 years before solar becomes cost competitive,” he said.
Dave Donovan, manager of Wisconsin regulatory policy for Xcel Energy, agreed. Donovan is a member of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin’s Solar Collaborative Work Group, which is comprised of people from utilities, environmental groups and labor organizations interested in advancing the state’s solar capabilities.
The group is tentatively scheduled to report its findings in December. Donovan said he is not sure what the results will be.
“It’s valuable information to have for anyone,” he said. “But at this point, we just don’t know the cost of generation, interconnection or transmission. There are also going to be a lot of land-use issues to look at if panels aren’t going up on rooftops.
“These (panels) are not small, and there probably will be some fights about them.”
The panels also are not cheap, said Chris Collins, spokesman for Madison-based H&H Solar Energy Services Inc.
“An individual panel can cost about $1,000,” he said. “But that price goes down when you’re dealing in bulk, so it’s hard to give an average.”
Still, Collins said, many consumers and solar power proponents agree panel prices are still too high. But if the state offers more incentives for solar panel installation, he said, that could make larger projects more attractive to developers.
The problem is that nobody knows how much a large solar project would cost, how much electricity would be generated or how the electricity would be transmitted, said Forrest Ceel, president of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local 2150 in Waukesha.
No states have submitted solar projects for the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator interconnection review process, and many states continue to seek federal grant money for small projects.
“It’s better to have one small-scale success than a large-scale disaster,” Ceel said.
But Ceel said Wisconsin should investigate the potential for large-scale projects.
Even increasing the number of small projects could make a significant dent in the state’s energy usage.
According to a 2008 study by the New Rules Project, a Minneapolis-based organization that deals with community sustainability, Wisconsin could displace 29 percent of its total energy consumption with customer-sited rooftop photovoltaic panels.
Watkins said it would be great if states could get to that point, but there still is a long way to go. If the Wisconsin work group determines solar power is too expensive, Ceel said, the group will say so. But no one else is trying to answer the questions.
“At some point, someone’s got to step forward,” he said. “We’re trying to be open-minded. If the technology can be proven, then it should be part of our mix.”