We were pleased to write this page for The Dodgeville Chronicle Earth Day Issue!
As Earth Day, April 22, 2017, approaches, it seems fitting that so many people are choosing to go solar.
Scientists at Stanford University’s Global Climate & Energy Project estimate that energy from the sun reaching the Earth’s surface in a year is twice the amount available from all our buried reserves of coal, oil and natural gas – the fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. The earth-friendly movement to install solar panels and capture some of the sun’s enormous energy to offset the need for burning so much fossil fuel couldn’t come at a better time.
Solar is having a great year. 2016 was Wisconsin’s best ever for new solar panels, and 2017 is expected to be even better. With technological improvements and increasing demand, the installed cost of solar panels has plummeted to less than half what it was just six years ago, and a number of local residents are jumping on board.
If you drive past Farmer’s Implement Store in Mineral Point, you’ll see a shiny, new array of solar panels installed for father and son owners Fritz and Dave Aschliman just in time for Earth Day.
“It’s something that I’ve been looking at for a while,” says Dave, who attended the Solar Fair in Dodgeville in January. I listened to the speakers and got a chance to meet some of the solar contractors. I heard about the benefits as far as the amount of coal consumption that can be saved over a year’s time and the economies of it. I made the decision that now is a good time to go ahead.”
Aschliman shared his reasons for the switch to solar. “It’s two-fold. Economically it’s a seven to 10-year payback. But also, the benefits of going green, I think we are doing the right thing for future generations. It will be good for my kids too,” says the father of five.
Family means a lot to Dave and his dad. “We currently have 19 employees, and some of them have been here 30 years. Our motto is ‘a family tradition of service’. We want long-term relationships with our customers, so we try to do it right. I think for the future of the business, renewable energy is a good thing to do.”
Aschliman selected Eagle Point Solar in Dubuque to install his panels. “We do everything from residential to commercial to schools,” says Mike Brummer, Eagle Point’s solar consultant. “We have been here a little over seven years, and solar installations are growing in every category. Everybody has their own reasons, but the bottom line is that the economics and green benefits are really good.”
Roger and Gayl Stewart built their home on the edge of Dodgeville in 2005. “We put the solar panels on in the winter of 2007,” says Roger. “The house was built to be energy efficient. It’s super insulated. We also have solar hot water and heating. We incorporated lots of concrete for thermal mass so that it would hold the heat, and we put in lots of south-facing windows.”
“We designed the house to maximize our solar gain,” he continues. “That was 2005 technology. Now we are in 2017, and I would recommend what we did to anyone. I’ve never been dissatisfied. Anyone with any kind of southern exposure could benefit from putting solar panels on their house.”
“As we developed plans for retirement, we became more oriented toward environmental issues,” he says. “We decided we should help take care of the earth.”
“We just came back from a trip to Missouri,” says Gayl. “Everywhere we went, every house, barn and shed seemed to have a solar panel on it.”
Kathy Cahill, who lives northwest of Dodgeville, got the idea to use solar panels form her parents, who built a passive solar house in Colorado when Jimmy Carter was president, and there were strong financial incentives to conserve and use alternate sources of energy.
“Inspired by them, I had Chimney Specialists in Highland put in a 9 KW system in 2014. I always generate more energy than I use, so Alliant sends me checks that add up to about $900 cash in my pocket every year, plus free electricity.”
Cahill figures the panels have also saved her money by making her more aware of how to conserve. “When I got my first check, I realized it could have been bigger if I was less wasteful with the electricity I used. My annual electric bill used to be about $900. Combining the money I no longer pay to Alliant, and the money they pay me for the extra electricity I generate, I think that makes a good investment. You can’t get $1,800 a year on a $26,000 Certificate of Deposit.”
“I certainly wish Wisconsin offered more incentives,” says Cahill. “I know at the time I was getting my panels, the state of Iowa was offering interest-free loans to people getting solar panels.”
In a comparison between Wisconsin’s solar marketplace and those of the other 49 states Wisconsin ranks 34th, behind our Midwestern neighbors Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana. But after a record-setting 2015 in Wisconsin, solar installations were even better in 2016. Also, a solar jobs census shows 2,813 workers in Wisconsin’s solar industry, up 45% from the 2015 numbers.
There are ways to keep the cost of solar panels even lower. The Solar Fair that Dave Aschliman attended was sponsored by the UW-Extension, the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Sustain Iowa County. The three organizations have joined forces with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) to facilitate a Solar Group Buy for residents in the Iowa County area. This will allow community members to form a group and use their collective buying power to save on the total cost of going solar through the power of volume purchasing.
Peter Murphy, who is coordinating the Group Buy through MREA says that a request for proposals from local solar installers was published April 3. Representatives from the three local sponsors will evaluate the proposals with him to select a single installer who will work with the program.
“There will be a series of free information sessions called Solar Power Hours,” says Murphy, “where we will go over the basics with potential solar panel buyers and how show how solar might impact their finances. We’ll talk about how the Group Buy works.” The first of several upcoming Solar Power Hours will be held twice on May 11, at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., at the Health and Human Services Building, 303 W. Chapel Street, in Dodgeville.
Those who are interested can learn more at the project’s website, solariowacounty.com.
Chuck Tennessen of Sustain Iowa County says of the Group Buy program, “We have been advocating for wider use of renewable energy in a variety of ways for several years, especially this year with the issue of the high voltage transmission line, because it could be a powerful statement if more people put in their own solar power. It illustrates that the power line truly is not necessary because the energy infrastructure is rapidly changing, and the Group Buy is an example of that right in our own backyard.”
“A number of people have already signed up to learn more about the Group Buy program,” Tennessen says. “We may be in a sweet spot now. There still is a 30% federal tax credit, and we still have the state’s Focus on Energy rebate program. We don’t know what the future is going to bring for either one of those incentives. The steady trend of dropping costs may flatten out because they have already fallen so dramatically. This seems like an ideal time to jump into solar.”
Dave Clutter, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, agrees. “Our core mission is land protection. We are opposing the high voltage transmission line because of the impacts to the ecology and the aesthetic character of our region.”
“Moving massive amounts of energy from a distant point source across the landscape is an old and dwindling technology,” says Clutter. “Energy demand has been flat or declining. We certainly understand that distributed energy generation at multiple sites throughout the region is the future. It puts more power literally into the hands of local communities. We need to be an advocate for renewable energy sources that are consistent with protecting the land.”
Liz Bothfeld is one of those who has signed up to learn more about the solar Group Buy. “Hank and I are very excited about it because we had looked into solar before but it was cost prohibitive. This time we are determined to do it even if we have to start small with just a few panels.”
“We’ve been interested in solar energy for a long time for all the obvious reasons,” she says. “It creates jobs in the U.S.. We won’t add to global warming. And now it’s cost effective. With utilities you just pay and pay, but with solar, eventually you pay off your system, and then you are getting money back.”
As a nurse practitioner, Liz has another compelling reason to switch to solar electricity. “I see patients all the time with asthma and COPD, a lung disease. To me, solar power is a health matter. We need to keep the air clean because people really do suffer.”
Liz also likes that solar power is a non-partisan issue. “We have friends who are Republicans, Independents, and Democrats, and they’re all interested.”
Katherine Klausing of RENEW, a group that is coordinating a solar group buy in Madison, agrees. “You look at polling numbers, and 80-90 percent of Americans want to see more solar energy and more renewable development. You can’t get that many Americans to agree on anything. Everyone wants homegrown energy from sources they can feel good about.”
“One of the great things about a Group Buy is it brings folks together across the community and provides them trusted, unbiased education about solar energy,” says Klausing. “When you have an experienced community partner like RENEW or MREA who have been around for many years and know the industry, they can help answer questions so folks feel comfortable.”
Lowering prices in general and increasing cases of cost-saving group buys seem to be having a positive effect on new solar installations.
According to REN21, a network of 700 energy experts associated with the United Nations Environmental Programme, 2015 was a year of record 25% growth in solar, with over 50 gigawatts (GW) of electricity generation added worldwide. The biggest 2015 contribution, 15.2 GW, was made in China, twice the amount added in the United States.
For those who remember the 1989 movie “Back to the Future Part II”, Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel forward in time to the year 2015 in Doc’s DeLorean, which supposedly took 1.21 GW to make the jump. But in a more down-to-earth analogy, the 50 GW of renewable solar power added in 2015 is roughly the output from 100 average-sized coal-fired power plants.
Whether the perspective is worldwide or local, the trend is clear.
“Solar has come a long way,” says Dave Aschliman, who will start enjoying sunny days a bit more as they power his implement business. “The price has come down quite a bit, and there are some tax incentives to do this too. We put in a 20 KW system, which will take care of half to three quarters of our electric consumption. We chose an expandable system with the idea that we can add on if our needs grow.”
“We have been here over 35 years now. My dad is retired,” Aschliman says. “I’m taking over the business and trying to make changes for the future that can be sustained long term.”