Wisconsin

Milwaukee Business Journal: Study to consider adding more round-trips on Amtrak Hiawatha line

The state this summer could hold hearings on the proposal to add three more round-trips a day to the Hiawatha passenger rail line between Milwaukee and Chicago.

The rail service run by Amtrak currently has seven round trips each weekday, and has seen strong ridership. It logged 804,861 rides in 2014, an 8.5 percent increase over 2009. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is preparing a study of increasing the number of daily trips to 10, said Arun Rao, Wisconsin DOT passenger rail manager.

A draft of the study could be made public this summer, prompting public hearings in late summer and potential federal sign-off later this year, Rao said. If federal officials approve that plan, the state will become eligible to apply for federal money for the additional routes, which likely would be operated by Amtrak.

Bloomberg: Harvesting Sunshine More Lucrative Than Crops at Some U.S. Farms

For more than a century, Dawson Singletary’s family has grown tobacco, peanuts and cotton on a 530-acre farm amid the coastal flatlands of North Carolina. Now he’s making money from a different crop: solar panels.

Singletary has leased 34 acres of his Bladen County farm to Strata Solar LLC for a 7-megawatt array, part of a growing wave of solar deals that are transforming U.S. farmland and boosting income for farmers.

Farmland has become fertile territory for clean energy, as solar and wind developers in North America, Europe and Asia seek more flat, treeless expanses to build. That’s also been a boon for struggling U.S. family farms that must contend with floundering commodity prices.

“There is not a single crop that we could have grown on that land that would generate the income that we get from the solar farm,” said Singletary, 65.

The rise in solar comes as the value of crops in the Southeast — with the exception of tobacco — has dropped. Cotton prices have fallen 71 percent in the last five years. Soybeans are down 33 percent and peanuts have slipped 16 percent.

Solar companies, meanwhile, are paying top dollar, offering annual rents of $300 to $700 an acre, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. That’s more than triple the average rent for crop and pasture land in the state, which ranges from $27 to $102 an acre, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The economic incentives spurring solar will be discussed at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York starting April 4.

“Solar developers want to find the cheapest land near substations where they can connect,” said Brion Fitzpatrick, director of project development for Inman Solar Inc. of Atlanta. “That’s often farmland.”

Developers have installed solar panels on about 7,000 acres of North Carolina pasture and cropland since 2013, adding almost a gigawatt of generating capacity, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. Georgia has added 200 megawatts on fields and cleared forests over the same period, much of it farmland, according to the Southface Energy Institute of Atlanta.

The number of megawatts developers can generate per acre of farmland varies, based on weather patterns, size of the panels and contours of the land. On Singletary’s farm, Strata Solar installed 21,600 panels, each about 6 feet by 3 feet (1.8 meters by 914 centimeters). Combined, they can power as many as 5,000 local homes.

Long-Term Contracts

Farmers typically lease a portion of their land, signing 15- to 20-year contracts with developers who install the panels and sell the power to local utilities. In rare cases, farmers have leased their entire property to solar companies.

Singletary signed a 15-year lease in 2013, with two 10-year extension options, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Strata sells the power to Duke Energy Corp. He declined to disclose financial terms.

Government incentives have played a key role in the spread of solar farms built on real farms. North Carolina granted developers tax credits equal to 35 percent of their projects’ costs though a program that expired at the end of 2015, helping make the state the third-biggest U.S. solar market. In Georgia, the Public Service Commission passed a bill in 2013 requiring the state’s largest utility, Southern Co.’s Georgia Power, to buy 525 megawatts of solar by 2016. Both policies sent companies scouring for open space to build.

Solar panels have buoyed tax bases in impoverished rural counties, said Tim Echols, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission. They also let farmers diversify their income with revenue that’s not subject to markets or unpredictable weather patterns.

‘Stable Income’

“Solar and wind farms have become a new stable income stream for farmers — and they don’t fluctuate with commodity prices,” said Andy Olsen, who promotes clean energy projects in rural areas for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

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Midwest Energy News: ELPC’s Andy Olsen Speaks on Co-ops Embracing Solar

By Kari Lydersen, Midwest Energy News

In Wisconsin, where state regulators and utilities have been perceived as cool to renewable energy, rural cooperatives are making major investments in solar power.

According to solar installers and experts, co-ops, which aren’t subject to regulation by the state’s Public Service Commission, are being more responsive to their customers’ interest in solar.

“What’s very important here is working with cooperatives, they have more flexibility,” said SoCore senior vice president of sales Rob Federighi.

Last year, Wisconsin’s solar capacity grew 39 percent, with community solar and other projects built by co-ops comprising a significant share of that.

That capacity is expected to grow another 40 percent this year – the state’s largest influx of solar power ever – thanks to projects commissioned by the Dairyland Power Cooperative.

Dairyland is a generation & transmission (or G&T) cooperative, that brings together 25 smaller member electric cooperatives and 17 municipal utilities in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. Such G&T cooperatives provide wholesale power to distribution cooperatives, which deliver the electricity to customers in rural areas.

Currently Dairyland has only 3 MW of small solar and bio-digesters in its system. The cooperative had incentive to increase its renewable resources because of the closing of DTE Energy’s 40 MW Stoneman biomass plant in Cassville, Wisconsin. Dairyland’s contract with that plant had helped meet its state renewable portfolio obligations.

“Dairyland Power is committed to expanding our investment in solar and other renewables for two main reasons: our members have expressed interest and we continue to diversify our generation portfolio with more renewable energy as part of Dairyland’s overall strategic plan,” said manager of business development Craig Harme. “It is good business practice.”

Dairyland has entered Power Purchase Agreements with two solar developers that will build and own solar installations providing energy to customers in member cooperatives. The cooperative got 30 answers offering 100 different plans in response to its request for proposals last summer, according to Harme.

Chicago-based SoCore will develop solar at 11 sites around the state, for a total of 16.4 MW. Vermont-based groSolar will develop a 2.5 MW project in northern Wisconsin.

Seeding Interest

SoCore senior vice president of development Eric Luesebrink said the project “is really kind of an innovative program” in its design and structure.

“Setting aside the fact it’s probably the largest single solar contracting exercise in Wisconsin, I don’t of know any other approach that’s been collaborative with distribution cooperatives and generation and transmission cooperatives like this,” he said.

Federighi said Dairyland’s RFP didn’t specify that projects had to be scattered over multiple sites, but “I think at the end of the day Dairyland liked the distributed nature of the projects and it fit in well with the grid.”

Distributed projects are “typically better absorbed by the power grid without significant impact on the local infrastructure and reliability,” confirmed Harme. Since the sites are all located near existing utility substations, significant upgrades to the grid should not be needed. SoCore is leasing sites from farmers or landowners with unused space.

“We really worked with the transmission members of Dairyland – who were really asking for solar,” said Federighi. “By partnering with them we really gained a lot of support within the network to do this project, as well as landowners who were really excited about it, as well as member co-ops, who are thinking about their own community solar garden projects, whether we can build systems for them outside of this.”

From One Farming State to Another

GroSolar’s installation will involve 6- to 8-foot-tall tracking panels that move with the sun, increasing efficiency 15 percent over stationary panels. The company says it will provide about 5,000 MWh in the first year, enough to power about 470 homes.

GroSolar spokesperson Maribeth Sawchuk said the company has no other developments in Wisconsin, and is “hoping to use this to get more contacts in the state, and see how local folks feel about solar.”

Sawchuck said the company often does installations on city property, old landfills and universities. GroSolar’s 2.5 MW, 10-acre installation on the Rutland city landfill in Vermont is part of Green Mountain Power’s heavy investment in renewable energy.

The company says the Wisconsin construction will mean about $750,000 in direct wages and more than $1.5 million economic impact on the area, with local contractors hired.

“It’s not just about installing solar, it’s about helping the environment, creating jobs and so much more,” she said.

A Cooperative Model

Keith Reopelle, senior policy director of Clean Wisconsin, said the group is “very pleased” with the Dairyland investment in solar especially given the challenges that solar faces in utility service territories.

“It is interesting we’ve seen more activity and investment by co-ops and municipal utilities under a little bit of a different model,” he said. “It makes sense because they are really just trying to be as responsive as they can to their members. Whether served by investor-owned utilities or cooperatives, solar is becoming more and more popular as the price goes down; and co-ops maybe have an advantage as they are able to be more nimble and more responsive to their customer base.”

“It’s really impressive to see all over the country how cooperatives are embracing solar and finding new ways to implement it,” added Andy Olsen, with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “There are a number of things that led them to this, to diversify their generation mix and move away from fossil fuels, which they have to do regardless of what happens with the Clean Power Plan.”

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Lacrosse Tribune: ELPC Applauds Solar Leadership by Wisconsin’s Electric Cooperatives

Using nature to help generate power isn’t exactly a new idea.

These days, when you factor in regulatory and environmental concerns and stir in the debate about climate change, all of a sudden it’s a fascinating — and sometimes frustrating — debate.

But two utilities in western Wisconsin have announced a significant investment in harnessing solar energy to generate power — and they’ve done it the old-fashioned way.

They’ve made the decision because it makes good business sense.

For the people of our region — from energy users to ratepayers — this is good news all around.

Barbara Nick, CEO of La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative, said: “It’s finally solar’s day in the sun.”

Projects announced recently by Dairyland and Xcel Energy will nearly double the capacity to generate solar energy in Wisconsin:

  • Dairyland will purchase power from 12 new solar arrays with a combined capacity of almost 19 megawatts.
  • Xcel will purchase up to three megawatts of electricity from community-owned solar gardens in western Wisconsin.

Investing in and developing natural sources of energy — and reducing reliance on fossil fuel — is the right strategy for the future.

As Nick pointed out, members of her cooperative believe it’s a good idea — and it certainly diversifies the cooperative’s portfolio.

Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, says 2016 will be Wisconsin’s year in the sun — in part because a drop in prices has made photovoltaic generation cost-effective for utilities as well as residents, business and nonprofits.

So, what does it mean when a utility like Dairyland adds a capacity of 19 megawatts? That can power the homes and farms of about 2,500 members of the cooperative.

It also means that Dairyland can reduce the amount of energy it buys on the open market — something it has had to do more of since it shut down five coal-fired boilers at its plant in Alma in 2014 as part of its agreement to settle a pollution case with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The moves by Xcel and Dairyland also demonstrate that “Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives are now national and state leaders in solar energy,” said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Madison.

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Vox: Rural electric co-ops are getting into solar

In the US, rural areas and constituencies have typically weighed against progress on clean energy. But that may be changing.

A new story out of Wisconsin illustrates that a slow, tentative shift is underway, as rural electricity consumers and the utilities that serve them take a new look at the benefits of solar power.

In fact, if you squint just right, you can even glimpse a future in which rural America is at the vanguard of decarbonization. The self-reliance and local jobs enabled by renewable energy are of unique value in rural areas, and rural leaders are beginning to recognize that solar isn’t just for elitist coastal hippies any more.

To appreciate what’s happening, let’s back up a bit.

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Press Release: Wisconsin Electric Co-Op Sets Standard for Rural Solar

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 24, 2016

Contact:
David Jakubiak

Solar Shines for Rural Electric Co-Ops
Announcement Nearly Doubling Wisconsin Solar Sets Roadmap for Midwest Co-Ops

Wisconsin’s Dairyland Power Cooperative and its member cooperatives announced a historic investment in solar energy on Wednesday unveiling plans to build more than 15 megawatts of new solar energy at 12 locations across Wisconsin.

The announced projects will nearly the double the amount of solar power installed in Wisconsin, which now has about 25 megawatts of installed solar. The projects will be built by solar developers SoCore Energy, based in Chicago and groSolar based in White River Junction, Vermont. Together the installations will create enough electricity for more than 2500 homes.

“Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives are now national and state leaders for solar energy,” said Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate of 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.”

Brad Klein, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the Dairyland announcement sends a strong signal to rural electric cooperatives across the Midwest. “The enormous potential for solar energy in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois is just now beginning to be realized, and rural electric cooperatives, which have strong relationships with their members, have an opportunity to lead the way.”

To learn more about the Dairyland Power announcement visit:

http://www.dairynet.com/dcontent/article/SolarResourcesannouncementSoCoregroSolar.pdf

Greenwire: ELPC Files Brief Urging EPA to Require Nutrient Standards Along Mississippi River

A coalition of environmental groups yesterday submitted their latest legal arguments in their fight against U.S. EPA’s refusal to require standards for nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin.

In a brief filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, 11 green groups say EPA should require states along the Mississippi River to adopt water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients that can lead to algae blooms that rob waters of dissolved oxygen and kill aquatic life.

These blooms have led to a nearly 6,500-square-mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“That dead zone has been growing and growing over time,” said Brad Klein, senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, one of the environmental groups suing EPA. “We’ve been really missing deadlines to try to get that under control.”

The brief is the latest move in a fight dating back to 2008 to force EPA to implement standards to stem the flow of nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico. That year, groups petitioned the agency to begin adopting standards for states that refused to create their own.

Three years later, EPA declined to make a decision on the petition, saying, among other things, that it was seeking partnerships with states to create voluntary programs to address nutrient runoff, rather than writing federal regulations.

The environmental organizations sued the agency in district court in 2012. The court sided with greens. EPA appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who affirmed the lower court’s decision on the question of courts’ jurisdiction to hear the matter at all, but remanded the case to the Louisiana district court to settle a limited question on whether EPA had based response to the petition on the text of the Clean Water Act.

“We’re looking at that little narrow question that they sent back on the substance,” said Ann Alexander, legal advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest Program. “It’s a critically important question, but it’s a narrow question.”

EPA reasoned that it would “be impractical, inefficient, and counterproductive to devote its limited resources to the mammoth task of determining whether numeric nutrient criteria are required for multiple pollutants in numerous water bodies” in states around the country, the agency’s legal team wrote the court in November 2015.

Klein disagreed with that assessment.

“Voluntary and nonregulatory efforts alone are, we don’t feel are ever going to solve the problem,” he said. “We need actual targets and standards for what we’re going to accomplish.”

Greens are relying in part on the landmark 2007 Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the high court ruled the agency was required to make a determination as to whether carbon dioxide needed to be regulated based on the requirements of the Clean Air Act, rather than bringing in considerations not pertinent to the act.

But EPA disagreed that the Massachusetts ruling required that the agency make a decision on the current case.

“EPA has broad discretion to consider resource constraints, to balance competing statutory considerations, and to otherwise determine the ‘manner, timing, content, and coordination of its regulations,'” the agency wrote in its November brief.

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Howard Joins WBEZ’s Worldview to Discuss Paris Climate Agreement

Monday afternoon, Howard Learner joined Jerome McDonnell on WBEZ’s global affairs program Worldview to discuss what the COP21 agreement reached in Paris means to efforts to address climate change. You can listen to the broadcast below.

Circle of Blue: ELPC’s Madeline Fleisher Warns Tougher Regs Needed for Great Lakes to Avoid More Algae Bloom Disasters

After years of watching their state do little to address stormwater runoff, polluted wells, and noxious algae blooms in once clear waters, 16 Wisconsin citizens last month decided enough was enough. They filed a petition with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to force Wisconsin to correct failures in its clean water program or else take away Wisconsin’s authority to administer permits under the Clean Water Act.

It is a step of last resort expressing an utter lack of confidence in the state government’s ability and desire to protect its waterways.

The past two decades have seen the dismantling of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the state agency in charge of issuing and enforcing clean water regulations, according to Kim Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. The agency’s workforce has declined 18 percent since 1995. Last summer Republican Governor Scott Walker abolished the agency’s water division and its Bureau of Science Services while eliminating 18 staff positions.

Midwest Environmental Advocates, a Madison-based nonprofit law center, filed the petition for corrective action on behalf of the 16 individual citizens. The budget and staff cuts, and other changes, seriously harmed the agency’s ability to protect water, according to the petition, which also references a 2011 letter from the EPA that outlined problems within the state’s Clean Water Act programs.

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ELPC Defends Third-Party Solar Financing in Wisconsin & Minnesota

In October, ELPC published an in-depth legal analysis of the following question: Should third-party owners of small clean energy projects – such as rooftop solar – be considered “public utilities” under existing state law in Minnesota and Wisconsin? ELPC’s legal conclusion was clear: They should not.

Here’s why: Third-party financing allows residents or organizations to buy power from a company that operates solar panels on their property, thereby making local solar energy more affordable and attractive to those who couldn’t otherwise afford the upfront investment. This arrangement is widely available in many states and has led to strong solar market growth. But utilities in Wisconsin and Minnesota are calling on regulators to treat small-scale solar system owners just like large monopolies.  That designation would effectively prohibit third-party solar financing and place extreme limitations on solar market growth.

ELPC has shared our legal analysis with clean energy colleagues throughout the country and expect it to inform legislative and regulatory discussions that are increasingly “hot topics.” Stay tuned.

LEARN MORE About ELPC’s Defense of Third-Party Solar Installments

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