SOAK­ING UP EN­ERGY Here’s why more Wis­con­sin com­pa­nies are adding rooftop so­lar en­ergy pan­els

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - Paul Gores Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel USA TO­DAY NET­WORK - WIS­CON­SIN

When Lake­land Sup­ply Inc. opened its new head­quar­ters and dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter this year in Pe­wau­kee, the com­pany paid spe­cial at­ten­tion to the en­vi­ron­ment just out­side the build­ing as well as the am­biance in­side.

Plant­ings around the fa­cil­ity, for ex­am­ple, are meant to at­tract bees and but­ter­flies, whose pop­u­la­tions have been threat­ened by pes­ti­cides, said com­pany founder Larry Sch­midt Sr. The land­scap­ing in­cludes na­tive prairie grasses. New trees and shrubs have been planted on the site.

And, even though na­ture is im­por­tant to the Sch­midt fam­ily that owns Lake­land Sup­ply, there might not be clean-en­ergy pro­duc­ing so­lar pan­els on the roof of the new 83,000-square-foot build­ing if it wasn’t a pru­dent busi­ness move as well as an eco­log­i­cal one.

“I’m a num­bers guy, and I wouldn’t be do­ing it if the num­bers didn’t make sense,” said Larry Sch­midt Jr., chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of the pack­ag­ing and jan­i­to­rial sup­plies com­pany. “Ob­vi­ously we want to be con­scious of our en­ergy use and things like that, but this def­i­nitely makes sense even if you say ‘I don’t care about our Earth.’ This is a fi­nan­cial de­ci­sion, too.”

With the just-com­pleted in­stal­la­tion of al­most 500 so­lar pan­els that could off­set more than 61 per­cent of the an­tic­i­pated en­ergy use of the new build­ing, Lake­land Sup­ply is join­ing a grow­ing num­ber of Wis­con­sin com­pa­nies that are opt­ing to ad­dress their power needs with so­lar-gen­er­ated elec­tric­ity.

So­lar growth soars as prices drop

The most cur­rent data from the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion of Wis­con­sin shows that be­tween 2008 and the third quar­ter of 2017, the num­ber of so­lar pho­to­voltaic in­stal­la­tions on com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial build­ings in the state in­creased al­most nine­fold, to 1,030 from 118.

Records from the state’s en­ergy ef­fi­ciency pro­gram, Fo­cus on En­ergy, in­di­cate that the num­ber of com­mer­cial, in­dus­trial, agri­cul­tural and multi-fam­ily projects ob­tain­ing Fo­cus on En­ergy re­bates to in­stall so­lar elec­tric sys­tems is at 131 this year, up 35 per­cent from 97 in 2017. Five years ago, only 47 such projects ob­tained the re­bate.

Among big-build­ing own­ers in Wis­con­sin that now have so­lar sys­tems off­set­ting their elec­tric­ity needs: Ikea, Tar­get, Kohl’s, Amer­i­can Fam­ily In­sur­ance, Epic Sys­tems and May­fair mall.

Although Wis­con­sin still is in the bot­tom half among U.S. states in so­lar in­stal­la­tions of all types, ac­cord­ing to the So­lar En­ergy In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion, there’s no ques­tion so­lar power is ex­pand­ing here. Res­i­den­tial in­stal­la­tions have in­creased 12-fold over the last decade in the state, even faster than the pace of com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial so­lar elec­tric sys­tems, the PSC data shows.

“Al­most ev­ery so­lar in­staller that I talk to is busy and look­ing to hire, and look­ing for qual­i­fied peo­ple,” said Tyler Hueb­ner, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Re­new Wis­con­sin, a Madi­son nonprofit that tracks the re­new­able en­ergy in­dus­try. “It def­i­nitely is a grow­ing field and a grow­ing busi­ness.”

That growth is be­ing fu­eled in great mea­sure by the bot­tom line. The cost of in­stalling a rooftop so­lar sys­tem has fallen sig­nif­i­cantly, as has the time needed for a sys­tem to pay for it­self.

The cost of the sun­light-ab­sorb­ing pan­els has been re­duced by growth in de­mand glob­ally, cre­at­ing an econ­omy of scale in the man­u­fac­tur­ing of pan­els. In ad­di­tion, in­vert­ers, which make the power from so­lar pan­els us­able in build­ings and util­ity elec­tric­ity grids, have im­proved, Hueb­ner said.

There are more so­lar in­stall­ers as well, and they have been able to pare costs amid com­pe­ti­tion.

“So you take all that to­gether, and the cost of in­stalling so­lar on a busi­ness is prob­a­bly about 80 per­cent less to­day than it was 10

years ago,” Hueb­ner said.

$1 mil­lion a decade ago

The Lake­land Sup­ply so­lar project at N17W25081 Blue Mound Road cost $283,000. Ten years ago, it would have cost close to $1 mil­lion, said Mike Cor­nell, an en­ergy con­sul­tant with Arch Elec­tric Inc., which in­stalled the sys­tem for Lake­land.

That cost was fur­ther mit­i­gated by a $38,000 grant from Fo­cus on En­ergy and an $85,000 fed­eral in­come tax credit.

The so­lar elec­tric sys­tem is ex­pected to gen­er­ate more than $31,000 worth of elec­tric­ity per year for Lake­land Sup­ply, putting it on track to pay for it­self in about five years.

“I think the in­dus­try, like any other in­dus­tries, has hit crit­i­cal mass,” said Cor­nell, whose com­pany, which in­stalls com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial so­lar elec­tric sys­tems, has of­fices in She­boy­gan and Mil­wau­kee. “There’s a lot of peo­ple in it, so that drives the com­pe­ti­tion.”

In­stalling ar­rays of so­lar pan­els doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily in­volve drilling holes and bolt­ing the pan­els to the roof. At Lake­land Sup­ply, Ikea and many other so­lar sites, the pan­els are held fast to the roof by con­crete blocks. The Arch crews at Lake­land Sup­ply ac­counted for the ex­tra weight of the so­lar pan­els by re­mov­ing a cor­re­spond­ing weight in the river stones that an­chor the roof.

So­lar pan­els gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity when sun­light hits the ma­te­rial in the pan­els, typ­i­cally sil­i­con, and ac­ti­vates elec­trons that are cap­tured and con­verted to us­able elec­tric cur­rent. In the metro Mil­wau­kee area, that elec­tric­ity sup­ple­ments a com­pany’s core power sys­tem from We En­er­gies, re­duc­ing us­age of power made with fos­sil fu­els.

Time of year brings ‘sweet spots’

Once in­stalled, a so­lar sys­tem’s fuel is free and it pro­duces no pol­lu­tion. But with nightly dark­ness, cloudy days and snow — so­lar pan­els are slightly tilted, which helps snow slide off — busi­nesses re­main con­nected to their util­ity’s sys­tem to main­tain a re­li­able flow of elec­tric­ity in all times and weather. If they pro­duce more elec­tric power than they need at cer­tain times, they can be paid to ex­port it to the elec­tric grid.

Hueb­ner ac­knowl­edged weather can have an im­pact on so­lar pro­duc­tion in a state like Wis­con­sin.

“But on the flip side, the elec­tronic equip­ment ac­tu­ally works bet­ter at lower tem­per­a­tures,” Hueb­ner said. “So there are these sweet spots — March, April, May are re­ally good, and fall months are re­ally good — when it’s sunny and the tem­per­a­ture is be­low 70 de­grees.”

More so­lar megawatts com­ing

Cor­nell said so­lar in­stall­ers look for rooftops that might have po­ten­tial for so­lar pan­els and then con­tact the build­ing own­ers to ask whether they’ve con­sid­ered it.

“If they’re in­ter­ested, then where it starts is with a year’s worth of (elec­tric) bills so you can model the con­sump­tion of the place and un­der­stand what size of a sys­tem they could use,” Cor­nell said.

The So­lar En­ergy In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion re­ported that in the first half of 2018, Wis­con­sin had 134 com­pa­nies and more than 2,900 em­ploy­ees in­volved in in the so­lar power in­dus­try. The as­so­ci­a­tion pro­jected that over­all, Wis­con­sin would add about 750 megawatts of so­lar power dur­ing the next five years. One megawatt pro­vides roughly enough elec­tric­ity for the de­mand of 750 homes at once, ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia En­ergy Com­mis­sion.

Cor­nell said Arch Elec­tric alone is ei­ther in dis­cus­sions or in fi­nal en­gi­neer­ing on more than a dozen projects rang­ing from 100 kilo­watts to 2.5 megawatts that will be con­structed in 2019 and be­yond.

Larry Sch­midt Jr. said the way he sees it, the sun “is there for us to use.”

“This is a bot­tom line driven de­ci­sion that can make sense but still be good for our Earth,” he said.

Among big-build­ing own­ers in Wis­con­sin that now have so­lar sys­tems off­set­ting their elec­tric­ity needs: Ikea, Tar­get, Kohl’s, Amer­i­can Fam­ily In­sur­ance, Epic Sys­tems and May­fair mall. Although Wis­con­sin still is in the bot­tom half among U.S. states in so­lar in­stal­la­tions of all types, ac­cord­ing to the So­lar En­ergy In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion, there’s no ques­tion so­lar power is ex­pand­ing here.


Oc­tavio Gar­duno, fore­ground, Branden Fitzhugh, left, and Ruben Zamora in­stall so­lar pan­els for Arch Elec­tric Inc. at Lake­land Sup­ply Inc. in Pe­wau­kee.


Larry Sch­midt Sr., Lake­land Sup­ply Inc. founder and chair­man, sits in front of one of the in­spi­ra­tional signs the com­pany isknown for. Lake­land also is en­vi­ron­men­tally aware in as­pects of its build­ing and itsim­pact.

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