by John Berge
How many things do you know about that have dropped in price by 99% in your lifetime — your lifetime, that is, if you are 39 years or older?
The answer is solar (photovoltaic) cells and electricity that they generate. It is this phenomenal drop in cost since 1977 that explains the rapid rise in new solar energy installations. The RacineSolar group reports that 18 families have signed up for installation of solar arrays on their home, garage or elsewhere on their property. Michael Vickerman of RENEW Wisconsin says that is a phenomenal number for a community the size of ours and would even be great for Madison, a much larger city.
There are also many recent installations in southeast Wisconsin other than residential properties. A Racine assisted living facility, a Racine bakery and a farm with a big market in Kenosha county all are running at least in part with clean, renewable energy. Going a little farther afield, a Lutheran church in Madison has most of their sanctuary roof covered with solar panels; convents in Fond du Lac and Green Bay have large arrays providing much of their electrical needs; and the school system in Darlington is installing solar panels on the flat roofs of many of their buildings.
Unofficial conversations between RENEW Wisconsin and the Racine Public School System may have just started concerning possible solar panels on the latter’s roofs. It would be good environmental stewardship for our members to encourage the School Board, the administration and the city and county governments to very carefully but expediently investigate this possibility. All have large energy needs and large roof areas.
Since governments don’t gain the cost advantages of tax rebates that residential users do, some places have entered into agreements with third parties (which do pay taxes and are therefore looking for those rebates) that jointly own these solar installations on the school or governmental property.
Power companies are also now designing and building solar power plants, but not over here on the east side of the state where the power companies have overbuilt with fossil fuel plants. RENEW Wisconsin has an interesting map of the state that shows where solar power plants are being built by power companies but there is nothing east of Madison.
It should also be noted that the state of Iowa has the highest percentage of electricity generated with renewables in the region, but also has the lowest cost of electricity to both residential and commercial customers. This certainly refutes the charge that renewables are too expensive to compete with cheap coal or natural gas. The fuel costs for a solar power plant are zero and the start-up costs have dropped drastically. Cost is no longer a negative factor for renewable power. A discussion of distribution challenges will have to wait for more information and another column.