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