November 4, 2008

From Milwaukee to Madison: Solar Shines in Wisconsin

If you leave Madison and travel east on I94 for about 80 miles, you’ll be in Milwaukee, one of two Solar America Cities in Wisconsin, out of 25 Solar America Cities. The City of Madison, the other Solar America City in Wisconsin, will work with ‘Milwaukee Shines’ to break down informational, economic, and procedural barriers…

If you leave Madison and travel east on I94 for about 80 miles, you’ll be in Milwaukee, one of two Solar America Cities in Wisconsin, out of 25 Solar America Cities. The City of Madison, the other Solar America City in Wisconsin, will work with ‘Milwaukee Shines’ to break down informational, economic, and procedural barriers to solar energy proliferation in the region. Solar installation goals for Milwaukee Shines: about 100 solar-electric and 50 solar thermal systems, with a total capacity of 1 MW, by 2012.

DOE will help Milwaukee Shines integrate solar technologies into city facilities and energy planning with hands-on assistance in streamlining local regulations and practices, like zoning and building codes, developing solar financing options and incentive programs, and educating residents and local businesses on the benefits of solar power.

In addition to directing City departments to reduce energy use by 15% by 2012, Mayor Barrett has made the Municipal vehicle fleet greener with the introduction of hybrids and use of alternative fuels, directed City departments to reduce storm water runoff from City facilities by 15%, and taken the lead in championing the protection of the Great Lakes by fighting for the Great Lakes Compact.

Last month, Wisconsin held its fourth annual Solar Decade Conference in Milwaukee where some 400 attendees heard from local and national experts. “It was a solid conference,” said Don Wichert, Director, Renewable Energy Programs Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation (WECC), one of the conference sponsors. “All 26 booths sold out, and we had a tremendous amount of media coverage from Milwaukee TV, the Milwaukee Journal and Wisconsin Public Radio.”

Andrea Luecke, Project Manager for Milwaukee Shines Office of Environmental Sustainability, City of Milwaukee, fresh from the recent 2008 Wisconsin Solar Decade conference, had time to talk about Milwaukee’s solar activities.

IREC: Hi Andrea. Are you still recovering from the 2008 Wisconsin Solar Decade conference a few weeks ago? I hear it was hugely successful, with about 400 people attending and all of the exhibitor spaces sold out.

AL: Yes, it was. Actually, the conference was an opportunity to publicly kick off ‘Milwaukee Shines.’ Mayor Tom Barrett welcomed everyone and introduced Roman Draba, VP, Regulatory Affairs & Policy at We Energies, who presented the Mayor with a check for $200,000 for our ‘Milwaukee Shines’ project. Milwaukee’s very own Bill Guiney, UM-Milwaukee’s Solar Decathlon Team, DOE’s Tom Kimbis and Navigant’s Lisa Frantzis were also on the agenda.

IREC: Was there a time slot for you to talk about all the great work Milwaukee Shines is getting ready to do? I know you’re excited about the work ahead of you. Is there solar skepticism because Wisconsinites don’t believe that solar is a viable technology there, or that solar energy can only happen in a place like Madison?

AL: Well, Madison has a reputation for being at the front of the pack on issues, but Milwaukee is right up there. Our industrial roots are to our advantage when recruiting solar manufacturing and fabrication companies to relocate. We also have a very large workforce that we hope to better utilize as green jobs become more mainstream.

There are many out there who still believe that Wisconsin winters and solar power are incompatible. This just isn’t true. Education and dispelling myths about solar. We know we’ve got a bit of education to do to dispel solar myths. We also want to help homeowners navigate the maze of incentives, from rebates through the state’s Focus on Energy program to the renewed Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar power. We want to attract a solar manufacturer to this area, and one of our big goals is to create a robust local workforce and support industry development by increasing the number of solar installers through certification training and encouraging solar manufacturing businesses to locate in Milwaukee. Our partner working on this training is the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), a nonprofit group based in north-central Wisconsin that provides training for people interested in pursuing careers in renewable energy.

And like I said, we have and are continuing to strengthen Milwaukee’s legislative backbone which allows us to incorporate sustainable design into new developments.

IREC: You’ve got some of the best organizations as partners with you on this, like Focus on Energy, MREA, and We Energies. What will they be doing?

AL: Milwaukee Shines is led by the City of Milwaukee’s Ann Beier, Director of the Office of Environmental Sustainability, and myself – project manager. Our partners are We Energies, Focus on Energy, Johnson Controls, Midwest Renewable Energy Association, UW Milwaukee and Milwaukee Area Technical College. They’re responsible for providing support, advice and some in-kind technical services. They’ll help create a Milwaukee-specific website, hire a solar coach that will train trainers, and help build a Milwaukee-based installation industry, education outreach, technical support (among other things). In addition, Milwaukee Shines receives special advisory and technical assistance from the Department of Energy regarding proposals, financing options and market analyses.

IREC: Don Wichert from Wisconsin’s Corporation Commission, told me that the Focus on Energy solar markets doubled in 2008, going from about 100 PV and 100 SWH systems last year (2007) to about twice that this year. I understand We Energies has a larger scale solar program and including the big projects they supported, the total PV installed capacity went up 380 % this year. Not too shabby. With a team like that, you’ve got a great opportunity to reach your goals over the two-year time frame of the grant.

AL: I think so. Our funding is finally in place. In fact, the project just recently ‘launched’ so we have the entire two years ahead of us. That’s not a lot of time, but we’ve got strong partners and we’re committed. We feel that the time has come to transform Milwaukee into a long-term sustainable solar city. We know it can be done, especially with the high cost of heating and cooling coupled with a tremendous local demand for ‘green jobs’. We haven’t encountered much resistance. In fact, there has been one school, several community organizations, companies and homeowners that have approached us with ideas and interest in going solar. We know we have the support of Mayor Barrett as well as several City Council Members. This is a great opportunity for Milwaukee.

IREC: You’re not wasting any time. Have you already set the date for the next Wisconsin solar decade conference for 2009?

AL: Well, October 2009 will be the next solar decade conference, but in the meantime, mark your calendars for Milwaukee’s Renewable Energy Summit on March 25-28, 2009

Like I said, we started only a few months ago, but we have been reaching out to key city officials to help facilitate the procedural barriers we face. We met with city attorneys and our ‘champion’ city council member the other day to go over the feasibility of financing residential installations as well as bundling existing incentives. These days we are extremely busy researching the viability of various approaches to solar in an effort to find the best possible route for Milwaukee. We’re confident it’s possible, but we know it will take time.

To learn more about Milwaukee Shines, contact Andrea (414) 286-5593.