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View from around the state: Solar power to get its ‘day in the sun’

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Using nature to help generate power isn’t exactly a new idea.

These days, when you factor in regulatory and environmental concerns and stir in the debate about climate change, all of a sudden it’s a fascinating — and sometimes frustrating — debate.

But two utilities in western Wisconsin have announced a significant investment in harnessing solar energy to generate power — and they’ve done it the old-fashioned way.

They’ve made the decision because it makes good business sense.

For the people of our region — from energy users to ratepayers — this is good news all around.

Barbara Nick, CEO of La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative, said: “It’s finally solar’s day in the sun.”

Projects announced recently by Dairyland and Xcel Energy will nearly double the capacity to generate solar energy in Wisconsin:

  • Dairyland will purchase power from 12 new solar arrays with a combined capacity of almost 19 megawatts.
  • Xcel will purchase up to three megawatts of electricity from community-owned solar gardens in western Wisconsin.

Investing in and developing natural sources of energy — and reducing reliance on fossil fuel — is the right strategy for the future.

As Nick pointed out, members of her cooperative believe it’s a good idea, and it certainly diversifies the cooperative’s portfolio.

Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, says 2016 will be Wisconsin’s year in the sun — in part because a drop in prices has made photovoltaic generation cost-effective for utilities, as well as residents, business and nonprofits.

So, what does it mean when a utility like Dairyland adds a capacity of 19 megawatts? That can power the homes and farms of about 2,500 members of the cooperative.

It also means that Dairyland can reduce the amount of energy it buys on the open market — something it has had to do more of since it shut down five coal-fired boilers at its plant in Alma in 2014 as part of its agreement to settle a pollution case with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The moves by Xcel and Dairyland also demonstrate that “Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives are now national and state leaders in solar energy,” said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Madison.

As part of its recently announced plans, Xcel will purchase energy from community-owned solar gardens in western Wisconsin, including in La Crosse County. Those two gardens, to be built by Pristine Sun, a San Francisco-based developer, will double the current capacity of utility-sponsored community solar projects in Wisconsin.

That will double the amount of energy generated by utility-sponsored community solar projects in Wisconsin.

In Minnesota, Xcel is ramping up solar generation to more than 250 megawatts of capacity to meet legislative requirements.

Minnesota just announced 21 percent of its energy comes from renewable sources, putting the state on course to meet its standard of 25 percent by 2025. Wisconsin has already met a more modest target of 10 percent by 2015.

In Wisconsin, the utility’s solar projects are part of a pilot program approved last year by the Public Service Commission with the stipulation that it be cost-neutral for the people who are not participating in the project.

As at Dairyland, the company said it is a response to customer demand.

Lee Gabler, Xcel’s senior director of customer strategy, said: “Customers are looking for different options. We want to provide those options.”

Answering customer demand for solar energy is a good strategy.

And, with today’s technology, it’s also good business.

It’s a bright idea for our region.

And, as Nick said, there’s more to come.

Stay tuned.

— From the La Crosse Tribune

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