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Rural northern Wisconsin logs record-setting solar group buy

By KARI LYDERSEN
Energy News Network

BAYFIELD, Wis. (AP) — Growing plants year-round is not easy near the often-frigid, wind-swept Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior.

But Bill Bailey and his wife, Gayle Chatfield, have not only managed to pull off that feat. They’ve done so for the past five years while getting almost all of their power from renewable energy. The couple’s commercial greenhouse relies for heat and electricity on 13.5 kilowatts of photo-voltaic cells, as well as various solar thermal units.

The solar installations, along with two biomass boilers, could on their own provide almost all the power needed by the business, “saving us hundreds of dollars in electricity and 16,000 gallons of propane each month,” Bailey said. “It was an eye-opener about how well this stuff worked and how it was such a good business decision.”

Bailey and Chatfield can now take pride in having been among the prime advocates of a wildly successful solar group buy carried out this year with the help of the energy company Next Energy Solution. With its 78 installations totaling 470 kW, the buy was the largest of its type ever seen in Wisconsin.

Although group buys are often arranged by city officials, the one in this case was the result chiefly of a partnership between the all-volunteer nonprofit group Cheq Bay Renewables and Next Energy Solution. It was such a success that there’s already a waiting list for another group buy the two partners plan to carry out next year.

“It was a unique situation with Cheq Bay Renewables, to really go out on their own and accomplish something like this,” said Danielle Kelly, lead sales consultant at Next Energy Solution, which has its main offices about a two-hour drive away in Shell Lake.

“It was great working with them, keeping it very local to the area,” she said. “They really educated a lot of people before we even started playing a role — about price, about payback, about how these systems work, which was key to making this a very successful program. When you do that, all your local community members really put trust” in the project.

Apart from the Chequamegon Bay project, the second largest group buy this year, totaling 448 kW, was undertaken in Sauk County and organized by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, according to a tally by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin policy director. That surpassed the largest such buy seen in 2017 — one in central Wisconsin totaling 335 kW.

“Having a solar group purchase program in one’s locality substantially lowers the economic and psychological barriers that can stop a solar supporter from pulling the trigger on a new PV system,” Vickerman said. “Especially in their first year or two of operation, solar group buys have boosted the number of solar installations in a given area 10 times or more.”

Next Energy Solution offers group buys in three distinct cost tiers, which vary depending on how many customers are involved. Since the Cheq Bay group passed the 400-kW threshold for planned installations, everyone involved in it got the cheapest offering. Full installations cost about $2.45 a watt, Kelly said, and about 40 percent of the customers in that buy decided to go with a ready-to-install kit the company offers for less than $2 a watt.

The size of the installations bought ranged from 1.9 kW to 14.8 kW, and are being used to provide power to 66 residences, nine businesses and three municipal buildings — a garage, a forestry building and town hall.

In a fairly remote region where many residents have an independent streak, it was no surprise that the ready-to-install option was popular.

“This community up here is quite different,” said Kelly, who met with residents once a week during the group buy. “The savings may drive (most) people to do something like this, but for them it’s a lot about clean energy and the resilience of the community up there. It’s quite amazing.”

Some customers involved in the buy are on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, whereas others live on the coast facing the Apostle Islands, about a 90-minute drive east of Duluth.

Bailey, who is president of Cheq Bay Renewables, noted that local residents tend to be concerned about the environment. Many are graduates of Northland College in Ashland or otherwise affiliated with that institution, which is known for its environmental-studies programs.

Yet, the benefits of solar energy go beyond protecting the environment. Bailey said it can also reduce expenditures.

His and Chatfield’s ground-mounted PV installation, for instance, led to enough energy savings to pay for itself in seven years. With a group buy and current solar prices, that payback time would be even shorter today, he said.

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