Will solar eclipse fossil fuels?

On the surface, the biggest barrier to wider solar adoption in Wisconsin would appear to be the misconception that Wisconsin is too far north to bother with it (not true); that's a financial barrier that strikes Ole Olson as the biggest impediment to wider adoption in Madison.

Olson's employer, Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing, a custom machine builder that sells to solar panel manufacturers, has installed panels on the side of its building. He said the long view is a necessary part of the solar calculus because ROI will take time. "It's difficult to find a company with a 10-year view," he noted.

Cost and other issues will be addressed in a Solar Seminar for businesses, to be held Tuesday, April 19, from 8 to 10 a.m., in the Wisconsin Studio of the Overture Center for the Arts. Michael J. Potts, president and COO of Orion Energy Systems, will deliver the keynote presentation. (For more details, visit ibmadison.com/solar).

Several of your business brethren, including Isthmus Engineering, already have taken advantage of available incentives to incorporate solar technology. As part of a buy-back program with Madison Gas & Electric, Isthmus Engineering is returning most of the energy generated from its solar apparatus to the power grid. The apparatus is a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic system, photovoltaic being one of four ways to harness solar energy.

Fifty panels, each about 30 by 50 inches, are mounted apron-style on the side of the building and they create DC voltage. They are connected to an inverter inside the building that converts the DC into AC voltage, which is sold back to the power grid. "We're part of a buy-back program where we can sell the electricity and take in more than we pay for it," Olson explained. "So there is a cost advantage in generating electricity and putting it on the grid."

It's not just a matter of putting up solar panels. Businesses and residents have to apply for the MG&E program, known as the Clean Power Partner Program, and those who qualify can earn 25 cents per kilowatt-hour for the PV energy generated and delivered to MG&E's electric system.

If your building is in Madison, Larry Walker of Walker Energy Systems, who won a competitive bidding process to provide this service, will come out and evaluate your property for free to determine whether it's viable for solar. Outside the city, he provides assessments on a contract basis.

In general, experts say you should have a span of open rooftop space (or land or wall) that is free of shade for at least five hours a day. The rooftop works best if facing south, but a qualified installer can set the panels at an angle to capture sunlight from another direction. "If your panels are behind a tree and you are only generating electricity 50% of the day, that probably won't be a qualifying system," Olson noted.

Isthmus' panels get 99% of the available sunlight, and the panels come with a 30-year guarantee – they are guaranteed to still be producing 80% of their output in 30 years. Olson reiterated that the company is hoping for a payback time of 10 years; after that period, it will be making money on the deal. While most of the energy gets put back on the grid, he said the system provides between 5% to 10% of the company's energy needs.

Isthmus Engineering's initial solar budget was more than $80,000, but it took advantage of a tax credit that covered 30% of the installation cost, plus a Focus on Energy credit based on the amount of electricity generated per year, and then the MG&E buy-back program.

Olson doesn't doubt the recession slowed solar's momentum, but he believes greater investment in research to increase energy capture and emerging economic trends eventually will make solar more price competitive with fossil fuels. "I think fossil fuels will become very expensive," he predicted. "The price of fossil fuels will go up quicker than the price of solar will come down."

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