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Wisconsin professor cycles around the Midwest for solar

By KARI LYDERSEN
Energy News Network

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — On Jim Tinjum’s #bikethewind tour last year, he could often see the installations he was visiting for miles before he got to them — turbines towering gracefully in the distance.

On his recent #bikethesun tour, taking in about 1,200 miles of the Upper Midwest, he often had to pedal around in search of his solar destinations.

“Some of the sites were nestled in to the landscape pretty well,” said Tinjum, a UW-Madison associate professor of engineering with a specialty in renewable energy.

The goal of the two journeys was the same: to make more people aware that renewable energy could be providing more clean power in the Midwest. The solar bike trip, which concluded in August, took Tinjum through a variety of solar gardens in Minnesota, Invenergy’s Grand Ridge Energy Center in Illinois, a Wisconsin solar-powered coffee roaster and countless homes and businesses with rooftop solar.

The trip helped generate enthusiasm for solar energy, he said, in part through local media coverage and social media. The trip has also given him an opportunity to talk first-hand with engineers, developers, landowners and contractors throughout the Midwest about the difficulties and benefits of installing solar-generation equipment, insight he plans to share with others in the field.

One of the benefits of bike touring, Tinjum noted, is that it lets you observe your surroundings more closely than you would zipping through in a car. Among other things, he was struck by variances in how much different states rely on solar energy.

Community solar gardens were more common in Minnesota than he expected. In a blog, he wrote that they present an example that Wisconsin should try to follow.

Tinjum noted that on the solar front, Wisconsin leaves a lot to be desired.

“Even though I’m from Wisconsin, I see Wisconsin as playing catch up in the role of advancing solar,” said Tinjum, noting that his department offers a course to solar installers, engineers and designers.

He was also struck by seeing contiguous 1-megawatt solar gardens in use in Minnesota. Each of these gardens had its own interconnection to the grid, an arguably inefficient system necessitated by a legal limit that state sets on the size of these sorts of solar installations.

“That showed we just need sound policy and legislation that makes sense to give customers this choice they want and make it work,” Tinjum said.

Being an engineer, Tinjum was able to delve into the technical specifics of the sites he was visiting. He was especially impressed by the Grand Ridge Energy Center, which as about 210 megawatts of generating capacity from wind, 20 megawatts from solar and more than 30 megawatts worth of battery storage.

“I see that hybrid site as something possibly we will see more and more of,” he said.

He noted that the Wisconsin utility WPPI was a sponsor of his trip, and that he expects to see utilities and other players invest more in solar in the Midwest and Wisconsin in coming years,.

“I think we’re in the ground floor of seeing where solar can go,” he said.

Along with being an enthusiastic proponent of renewable energy, Tinjum is a big advocate of biking. This trip he used an electric-assist bike that allowed him to cover an average 100 miles a day.

“E-bikes are particularly good for those who might have a longer commute — 12, 20, 25 miles, and the other thing I see is for families who have different biking capabilities, to match their paces,” he said.

He made the trip with an e-bike on loan from Trek, which he said provided about one-third of the total power he used. On his blog he also touted the possibilities presented by electric cars, and posted a photo of his bike with a friend’s Chevy Volt.

He said that, in an ideal world, an electric bike’s battery could be charged with solar power. During his trip, he did get to charge it at the home of a former student who has a solar-energy purchase plan.

Tinjum’s professional projects include work on developing stabilization for ground-mounted solar sites — including posts driven deep in the ground — that can operate well in Midwestern winters.

“It’s pretty intriguing to be involved with solar energy sites because they are very multidisciplinary,” he said. “It’s a lot more than electrical engineering — it’s a lot of policy, economics.”

Next year Tinjum hopes to bike from Seattle back to Madison, visiting wind, solar, biogas and other renewable energy sites along the way. The trips will present another opportunity to “be able to put your passion out there with the profession and your outreach and charity efforts,” he said.

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