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Solar industry contending with uncertainty amid outbreak

Nate Beck
nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Although Wisconsin’s fast-growing solar energy industry isn’t going dark amid the COVID-19 outbreak, it is nonetheless contending with dampened demand for some projects and pondering questions about what might have been.

Some industry officials remain hopeful that customers will view the economic shutdown imposed to slow the virus’s spread as a chance to take on long-delayed home-improvement projects. At the same time, many have already seen commercial jobs stalled amid the economic uncertainty. And although plans are still advancing for some utility-scale solar farms in the state, construction is delayed on at least one notable job — phase one of the Badger Hollow solar farm in Iowa County.

Ray Hoffman, sales and marketing manager for the Wauwatosa-based electrical contractor Current Electric, said the coronavirus outbreak at least has not slowed residential projects. That sort of work in fact has been going on at a faster pace than last spring. Still, Hoffman wonders if there might have been even more work if the industry weren’t contending with a pandemic.

“It has slowed down some,” Hoffman said. “I’m not going to say it has been dramatic, but it’s happening.”

Hoffman said company official expect strong year-over-year increases for both residential solar work and residential battery storage jobs, a fast-growing part of Current Electric’s business. Demand for commercial projects has been weaker, however, since some project owners are reconsidering whether it’s wise to pursue big projects amid so much uncertainty.

Hoffman said Current Electric is continuing to perform exterior solar installations. The biggest change is that homeowners and Current employees are taking extra precautions to ensure they can keep their distance from each other. And some customers have asked for installation work to be delayed.

Ed Zinthefer, president of Plymouth-based Arch Electric, said he has seen a mixed bag. Some residential solar projects continue to move forward even as others have gone dark. Nearly the same thing can be said for commercial projects the company had planned to take on this year.

Among the projects hampered by the virus are five utility-scale solar farms Arch Electric is working on in Illinois. For one, social-distancing rules are preventing workers from sharing transportation to job sites and forcing them to travel in separate cars.

Some employees have also decided to stay home with their families rather than working through the pandemic. Despite these hurdles, Zinthefer said his company hasn’t had to rely on force majeure insurance clauses that are supposed to offer contractors protection when work has to be stopped for reasons beyond their control.

Michael Vickerman, policy director for RENEW Wisconsin, said the delay in the Badger Hollow solar project in Iowa County shows the solar industry isn’t immune to the economic consequences of the coronavirus.

In a filing with the state Public Service Commission, the developers of the project said they were delaying it by four months because restrictions placed on the hospitality industry in response to the outbreak would mean out-of-state crews would have nowhere to stay.

But not every project is being impeded. Construction, for instance, is proceeding on the 150-megawatt Two Creeks solar farm in Manitowoc County. And the pandemic may not disrupt the approval process for five other utility-scale solar jobs before the PSC.

Other states, such as Illinois, have seen greater job losses and slowdowns in their solar industry than Wisconsin has, Vickerman said.

“From a solar perspective, Wisconsin is doing OK, at least from the utility scale,” he said.

But even as work continues throughout the pandemic, the clean energy industry will be looking to Congress and state officials for help with a recovery. So far, federal stimulus legislation has offered little in the way of infrastructure incentives. One welcome policy change would be to bolster the federal solar energy tax credit — which now stands at 26% now but is scheduled to step down to 22% at the end of the year, Vickerman said.

“The situation is now the industry is starting to see pretty significant job losses in parts of the country,” he said. “We’re starting to make the case that solar are wind are worthy targets for relief efforts.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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