La Crosse Tribune Op-Ed: Renewable energy generates jobs, business and clean power

Alicia Leinberger founded Ethos Green Power in Viroqua to bring clean power and good jobs to rural communities. “There’s not really a lot of opportunity for young people to get jobs out here,” Leinberger said. “Making solar and servicing solar has been really successful.”

Renewable energy jobs and businesses include solar panel installers and wind power construction companies, technical analysts, project developers, and engineering and finance companies.

This growing sector is a bright spot for Wisconsin’s economy.

In southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, for example, there’s Driftless Solar (Dodgeville, Spring Green, La Crosse), Olson Solar Energy (Onalaska), Timmerman’s Talents (Platteville), Pipkin Electric and U.S. Solar Mounts (Sparta), Windspire Energy (Reedsburg), and Eagle Point Solar, which installs solar projects in Iowa and Sauk counties, among many others, providing both local jobs and clean energy.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Wisconsin Clean Energy Business Supply Chain Report provides a directory of 354 Wisconsin solar energy and wind power businesses, and a policy playbook for Wisconsin’s cleaner energy future.

Smart policies make a difference. Renewable energy projects – and the jobs and economic growth they create – flourish in states with supportive policies.

To grow Wisconsin’s renewable energy business supply chain, Wisconsin should drive the market with focused policies. Here are three ways the Legislature and Public Service Commission can accelerate renewable energy development progress, investment and job creation.

  • Clarify that solar energy third-party financing and ownership is legal: Solar energy costs are dropping as the technology improves, but the front-end payment can deter investment in rooftop solar panels. One solution: third-party ownership and financing. The solar company owns and maintains the panels while the building rooftop owner receives the benefits of clean electricity and utility bill savings.

Eagle Point Solar and the city of Milwaukee tried this conventional financing arrangement, but We Energies opposed it, arguing that an independent solar installer is a “public utility.” That’s like saying Walmart’s auto center is a “public utility” because it recharges car batteries. The Public Service Commission is allowing this regulatory obstacle to solar progress and insulating We Energies’ monopoly. This barrier to solar energy development should be removed.

  • Update the renewable electricity standard: In 1999, Wisconsin set a goal of 10% renewable energy by 2015. That was achieved in 2013. Although Illinois and Minnesota are moving ahead, Wisconsin has stayed still. Legislators should update Wisconsin’s renewable energy standard to 25% by 2025 to drive economic growth and innovation.
  • Accelerate community solar development: Community solar enables multiple consumers to subscribe to solar project shares and receive credit for the output. That helps both urban apartment dwellers and rural people gain better access to solar energy opportunities. In Wisconsin, community solar development is limited by lack of supportive policies and open markets. By contrast, Minnesota requires Xcel Energy to allow customers to subscribe to non-utility community solar projects and receive bill credits for generation.

Wisconsin should seize its competitive advantages to become a clean energy economy leader. Let’s accelerate Wisconsin’s renewable energy business future. It’s good for jobs, good for economic growth and good for the environment.

This op-ed was originally published in the LaCrosse Tribune on March 1, 2020.

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