Two Wisconsin utilities announced projects Wednesday that will roughly double the state’s solar energy generation capacity.
Dairyland Power Cooperative has agreed to purchase power from 12 new solar arrays with a combined capacity of almost 19 megawatts, while Xcel Energy has agreed to purchase up to three megawatts of electricity from community-owned solar gardens in western Wisconsin.
“It’s finally solar’s day in the sun,” said Dairyland CEO Barbara Nick, who said the La Crosse-based utility was motivated by a desire to diversify its power portfolio and meet customer demand.
“It’s fair to say this is something our cooperative members are very interested in,” she said.
Dairyland’s purchase agreements, which the utility estimates will power about 2,500 member homes and farms, drew praise from clean energy advocates.
“Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives are now national and state leaders for solar energy,” said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Madison. “Dairyland was clear that this effort grew out of support for solar from their members, commitment to diversifying their generation and stabilizing costs, which are goals of cooperatives across the region.”
Earlier in the day, Xcel Energy announced an agreement to purchase up to three megawatts of electricity from community-owned solar gardens in western Wisconsin, including projects planned in La Crosse and Eau Claire counties.
Those two gardens, to be built by Pristine Sun, a San Francisco-based developer, will double the current capacity of utility-sponsored community solar projects in Wisconsin.
Xcel has plans to have more than 250 megawatts of solar capacity in Minnesota by the end of 2016 in order to meet mandates of that state’s legislation. The Wisconsin arrays are part of a pilot program approved last year by Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission, which stipulated that it must be cost-neutral for non participants.
The company said it is a response to customer demand.
“Customers are looking for different options,” said Lee Gabler, senior director of customer strategy. “We want to provide those options.”
Together, the projects announced Wednesday will add nearly 22 megawatts of direct current capacity in a state where solar advocacy groups estimate current capacity is about 25 megawatts.
“It basically shows 2016 is going to be Wisconsin’s best year yet for solar,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, who said the 60 percent drop in prices has made photovoltaic generation cost effective for utilities as well as residents, business and nonprofits.
Solar electric generation in the United States rose 43.4 percent last year, according to the Energy Information Administration, and not just in sun-drenched western states. Minnesota’s solar generation grew by 36 percent, Wisconsin’s by about 18.5 percent. The majority of the growth was in distributed generation, projects owned and operated by private citizens or companies.
But despite the rapid growth of solar energy, coal remains the dominant fuel in Wisconsin, generating more than 61 percent of the state’s electricity in 2014, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. And even with the new projects, solar will account for less than 1 percent of the state’s generating capacity.
Dairyland did not disclose the cost of its purchase agreements or the total cost of the solar arrays, which will be paid for by two private developers, Vermont’s groSolar and SoCore Energy, a Chicago-based subsidiary of Edison International.
But utility officials say the cost is now competitive with other fuels.
John Carr, Dairyland’s vice president of strategic planning, said the additional solar power will replace some of the electricity that Dairyland has purchased on the open market since shuttering the last of five boilers at its Alma plant in 2014.
Nick said the availability of solar resources provides some hedge against future regulation of fossil fuels, which still account for more than 88 percent of Dairyland’s nameplate capacity.
Dairyland last year sought proposals for up to 25 megawatts of photovoltaic generation. Utility spokeswoman Deb Mirasola said the co-op received more than 30 responses with more than 100 proposed alternatives.
Nick said Dairyland is negotiating agreements to purchase additional solar resources.
“You’ll hear more from us,” she said.
“Customers are looking for different options. We want to provide those options.” Lee Gabler, senior director of customer strategy for Xcel