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Wisconsin lags on renewable energy

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Matt Neumann needs only one word to describe Wisconsin’s recent record on renewable energy: “rotten.”

Neumann, president of the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, is equally concise in ascribing blame: “The big change happened in 2010, when the Republicans took control of the governorship and Legislature.”

Such criticism may have greater weight given that Neumann is a self-described conservative who a few years back launched SunVest, a Pewaukee-based solar-installation company, with his father, Mark. The elder Neumann is a former two-term Republican congressman who in 2010 unsuccessfully challenged Scott Walker for his party’s nomination for governor.

Matt Neumann said the economics of solar power have improved dramatically in recent years, to the point that government subsidies no longer are needed.

“But we still need policies that support the ability to install solar,” he said, adding that the state is missing opportunities to grow the sector.

Renew Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy group, has tallied that the number of new solar electric installations in Wisconsin fell from 339 in 2010 to 136 in 2012 and then rose slightly to 194 in 2013. New solar installations nationally grew by leaps and bounds. More than 150,000 were added last year, about three times as many as in 2010.

For wind power, Renew Wisconsin reported that the number of commercial turbines in service plunged from 215 in 2008 to just 10 in 2012. Wind power in Wisconsin has since “flatlined,” said Michael Vickerman, the group’s program and policy director. No new turbines were added in 2013 and 2014, and none are planned by state utilities, he said.

A recent poll by a bipartisan research team found that more than 80 percent of Wisconsin voters support raising the state’s use of various forms of renewable energy, including solar, wind and biomass.

Gary Radloff, a researcher with the Wisconsin Energy Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Wisconsin utilities are not rushing to add renewables because they already met the state’s sole mandate of having 10 percent of electric power come from those sources by 2015. Roughly half of that energy is purchased from other states, as the law allows.

Dane County Regional Airport’s new Airfield Maintenance Building has a 58,000-square-foot garage topped with 376 photovoltaic panels that are capable of producing as much as 135,000 kilowatt hours of electricity in a year. Similar new solar electric projects, according to Renew Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy group, have fallen since Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2010.

Dane County Regional Airport’s new Airfield Maintenance Building has a 58,000-square-foot garage topped with 376 photovoltaic panels that are capable of producing as much as 135,000 kilowatt hours of electricity in a year. Similar new solar electric projects, according to Renew Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy group, have fallen since Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2010. (Photo courtesy of the Dane County Regional Airport)

Other states have set higher thresholds, encouraging further investment. Minnesota, for instance, wants utilities to get 17 percent of electric power from renewables by 2016 and 25 percent by 2025.

Matt Neumann called on the state to change its laws to clearly let companies such as his install and lease solar systems without being considered utilities. And he is fighting utilities’ proposed changes in rate structures that would remove some of the economic advantages of using solar or pursuing conservation.

Mary Burke, the Democratic candidate for governor, has blasted Walker for his record on renewable energy and pledged to boost state investment in wind power, biofuels and digester technologies that turn waste to watts.

According to an email attributed to Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick, focusing on just solar and wind does not provide “a full picture” of what the governor has done. The email did not include information about whether the governor supports increasing the percentage of renewables electricity utilities must get beyond 10 percent, but the email cited a PSC memo that forecasts utilities will reach 11.5 percent by 2016.

Matt Neumann is optimistic, saying the climate for renewables will improve in Wisconsin as “conservatives recognize the economic opportunity.”

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