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Solar energy has a sunny outlook in Wisconsin

By Jan Basina

Wonders never cease –- northern businesses and homeowners using solar energy to light and heat buildings and homes? Isn’t this the sun-challenged Midwest?

But apparently that’s not stopping green energy construction anytime soon, especially projects powered by solar energy.

A recent press release announced the largest solar power installation in the state of Michigan. It’s happening at the Torresen Marine marina, just across the lake in Muskegon, Mich. Inovateus Solar, Chart House Energy and Torresen Marine are partnering on the $740,000 solar power development. The new system will provide the marina with 30 percent of its power and produce the equivalent energy it takes to power 20 homes in the Muskegon area.

Then there’s the Orion Energy Systems project in Manitowoc. The company is completing the installation of a photovoltaic solar system, which has a collection capacity of 250 kilowatts. California-based Solyndra Inc. has partnered with the power technology company to install PV solar panels on the roof of its 260,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.

And the U.S. Department of Energy last year named three Midwest cities — Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis-St. Paul — as Solar America Cities, entitling each of the cities funding for solar energy projects.

The “Milwaukee Shines” initiative will attempt to reduce the informational, economic and procedural procedure barriers to solar energy projects in the area. Madison’s “MadiSUN” is a two-year attempt to double the use of solar energy. And Minneapolis-St. Paul shares a goal of large-scale implementation by 2015.

That’s not to say everything is bright and sunny, at least not yet.

Everyone agrees that solar energy is clean and abundant and reduces heating and cooling costs, along with greenhouse gases. But solar energy still remains expensive compared to the costs associated with implementation of the renewable energy.

This is a sample of a photovoltaic array that will be installed at MATC's Photovoltaic Educational Farm. MATC and Johnson Controls are collaborating on the solar project, believed to be the first of its kind in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Area Technical College)

This is a sample of a photovoltaic array that will be installed at MATC's Photovoltaic Educational Farm. MATC and Johnson Controls are collaborating on the project, believed to be the first of its kind in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Area Technical College)

According to an article in the May 11 issue of The Economist, even though solar energy costs are dropping, if it were not for government subsidies, the market for solar energy would not be as prolific. The article references the International Energy Agency, which compares the power from photovoltaic systems costing $200 to $600 a megawatt hour, to $50 to $70 per megawatt hour for onshore wind power. There’s even lower prices for power from fossil fuels, unless taxes on greenhouse emissions are included.

But green energy construction could be the wave of the future. In fact, ground was just broken for Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Photovoltaic Educational Farm, the largest solar project in the state. Johnson Controls is the technical partner and general contractor on the project. The farm, which will accommodate nearly 2,600 solar panels, will eventually provide training to students in the solar energy field.

When finished, the farm should generate enough power to make MPTV’s television transmitter the first of any public television state in the country to be powered with renewable energy. It is expected that during its first year of operation, the $6.8 million project will reap $70,000 in an energy savings for the TV station.

Solar energy is clean, green and mean (no one wants to dispute its advantages), even though, for now, it might be a bit pricey.

Jan Basina is a data reporter at The Daily Reporter. She can be reached at (414) 225-1817.

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