The city hopes to increase solar generation to 60 megawatts, a significant chunk of its power grid.
In a July 11 letter to the U.S. Department of Energy, Mayor Paul Soglin conceded an unfortunate reality: "Today in Wisconsin the responsibility for promoting clean energy has become the domain of cities."
The city is asking the DOE for a $600,000 grant to help increase solar generation here 30-fold by 2025.
The program -- dubbed MadiSUN Megawatts Solar Market Pathways -- has gotten support from Dane County, local legislators, UW-Madison, the city of Monona, unions and environmental groups.
But one notable entity opposes it: Madison Gas and Electric, the region's utility company.
Steve Kraus, the company's spokesman, writes in an email to Isthmus: "In its current form, the project's size and scope require state and federal regulatory oversight. The project also has large technical and grid reliability impacts, which require a comprehensive engineering study. And, MGE has made a commitment to all customers to engage them in a community-wide discussion that will help set a direction for the Madison area's energy future."
MGE's opposition -- along with the company's controversial proposal to restructure electricity rates -- has some questioning its commitment to green energy.
"Other utilities, both in the United States and abroad, have encouraged individual and group renewable enterprises," says Ald. David Ahrens. "MGE's position is, if we're not doing it, it can't be done. The problem is, they're not doing it."
Bringing down costs
Although the cost of solar panels has plunged in recent years, it's still expensive to do the planning and installation -- the so-called soft costs, says Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, which is partnering with the city on the Megawatts program.
With its proposal, the city aims to bring those costs down locally by getting households, businesses and other entities to collaborate. For example, if 20 households hire the same contractor, installation costs become more affordable. "If you can get a lot of those organized, you can drive down the cost, either by bulk purchasing or making sure the suppliers have plenty of work," he says. "There's efficiencies of scale there."
With some buildings, solar panels are impracticable: They may not get enough sun or the roof could need repairs. These homeowners could establish a solar co-op, investing in solar panels that would be placed somewhere sunny. "It could be anywhere in the MGE grid, theoretically," Huebner says.
By encouraging collaborations like these, the city hopes to increase solar generation here to 60 megawatts. That would be a significant chunk of the city's power grid. MGE's current capacity is about 800 megawatts, including 2.1 megawatts now generated through solar.
The city's grant application anticipates that some of this solar generation would be owned by the local utility.
Kraus says that producing that much solar poses significant engineering challenges for the company. "There are technical issues for bringing something this large onto the grid," he says. "The size, the impact of something like this, would require an engineering study."
He adds that MGE is preparing to engage customers next year about what they want the utility to do. "We're going to discuss what type of renewables and how much generation from renewables MGE should be considering in its planning," Kraus says. "Until these conversations are completed, we're going to wait to make any future decisions."
But, Kraus adds, once those conversations have occurred, the utility might sign onto programs like the city is proposing. "There are parts of the city's grant proposal that we agree with and parts that are problematic," he adds in an email. "The focus on solar is too narrow when discussing all possible future renewable energy generation. Our community conversations will include discussions on various renewable energy technologies such as landfill gas, food and animal waste digesters, wind, etc."
Ahrens counters that MGE's green cred is mostly talk and little action. "They're committed for the next 30 years to coal and natural gas, but primarily coal," Ahrens says. "Projects like this get in the way of those contracts that they have."
Huebner says he doesn't know when the DOE will decide this round of grant applications or how MGE's opposition will affect its chances.
"It's totally out of our hands, really," Huebner says. "It's impossible to say whether our application is compelling without their support or even with their support."