Andy Olsen

Curbed: ELPC’s Andy Olsen Emphasizes the Importance of Solar Energy for Rural America’s Development

The Rural Renewable Power Renaissance
Solar and wind have made great strides across the country. Will Trump’s budget halt progress toward a greener heartland?
April 4, 2017
By Patrick Sisson

Abita Springs, Louisiana, a bedroom community of 2,365 about an hour north of New Orleans, is the picture of a small Southern town. The fifth-largest city in St. Tammany Parish, it’s best known for the local microbrewery Abita Brewing Company. Late last month, it also made news as the latest municipality in the country to commit to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

“I hope we’re setting an example for other small communities across the country,” says Mayor Greg Lemons, who made it a point to lead by example and add solar panels to his boat on Lake Pontchartrain. “I want people to say, ‘Look at Abita Springs, a small town with a $3 million budget. They’re doing something.’”

So far, the Abita Springs effort is in its preliminary stage. The town is already replacing regular bulbs with LED lights, but is also examining how to add solar panels to all municipal buildings and, eventually, include electric vehicle charging stations. It’s just a plan and a promise, but the gesture is also a symbol of the growth of renewable energy in the U.S., especially in rural areas of the country.

”I’m a Republican, but I’m not a Republican that says ‘business at any cost,’” says Lemons. “We need to be concerned about our environment and invest in our environment.”

Increasingly, Lemons isn’t a outlier. As the new administration begins to enact its energy policy, including support for the coal industry, the conventional wisdom says that support for fossil fuels is a play by Trump to appeal to his base of rural voters. But like any cross-section of the country, rural America isn’t easily stereotyped. Renewable power has made significant strides across this part of the country as wind and solar take root in farm country, as well as more sparsely populated parts of the United States.

It’s not just that renewable power is providing more jobs than the coal industry—roughly 300,000 U.S. workers are employed by wind and solar, compared to the 65,971 who work in coal mining—it’s also having an outsized impact on rural communities. The Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Campaign, which features municipalities that have, like Abita Springs, committed to a renewable energy future, includes rural towns such as Greensburg, Kansas.

According to Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, significant advances have been made in rural wind and solar power in the last decade, and the growth of these energy sources is helping rural America.

“There is a lot of talk about the gulf between urban and rural Americans,” he says. “There’s a lot less of a gulf than we think. There are a lot of rural people interested in seeing these renewable energy programs work, who are very passionate about natural resource conservation.”

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(IL) Journal State-Register: ELPC’s Andy Olsen says solar energy, wind power are economically competitive to coal

No Quick Fixes for Struggling Illinois Coal Industry
March 28, 2017
By Tim Landis

City Water, Light and Power of Springfield is one of only three power plants in Illinois that still burn Illinois coal.

Even if an executive order signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump withstands anticipated legal challenges, little is expected to change in the short term for an industry that has watched production and jobs steadily decline as a result of stricter clean-air rules, fuel switching by utilities and competition from cheaper natural gas. Illinois coal production fell for the second year in a row in 2016, to 43.3 million tons.

Industry employment in Illinois last year of 3,600 was the lowest since 2010 and far below the 10,000 employed the year the federal Clean Air Act took effect in 1990. Arch Coal Co. and Peabody Energy Corp., both based in St. Louis, filed for bankruptcy in 2016. Arch, owner of the Viper Mine near Elkhart, completed bankruptcy reorganization in October.

“We very much welcome this, but it’s not going to bring coal back to where it was,” Illinois Coal Association president Phil Gonet said Tuesday. “At least it stops the bleeding.”

Gonet said Obama-era climate rules have been the biggest factor in the decline of Illinois coal, though natural gas competition has hurt, too.

“Most of it has been power plants shutting down, but the price of natural gas has had an effect,” said Gonet. “We can compete with natural gas, if we’re given a level playing field.”

More Coal, Fewer Miners

Even if coal sales improve, mining techniques require ever fewer miners for increased production. The 3,600 miners required to produce 43.3 million tons of Illinois coal in 2016 was approximately the same number required to produce 33.4 million tons in 2010, according to coal association figures.

Federal statistics indicate that U.S. production of 739 million tons last year was the lowest in four decades. Employment fell by 60,000 from 2011 to 2016, to approximately 77,000.

The Illinois Sierra Club pointed out Tuesday that the president’s action was taken on the same day the Solar Foundation released an annual employment census showing the solar industry employs more state workers than coal. The 3,700 solar jobs in Illinois last year was up 7 percent from 2015, according to the report.

“Illinois is on course to become the national leader in wind power, solar energy and conservation programs, and we should not let President Trump’s crusade against science, and our legal and moral obligation to act on climate change, determine our future,” Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “States that continue with efforts to limit carbon pollution will now be more likely to attract the jobs, economic investment and cleaner air offered by the steadily growing clean energy economy.”

CWLP, the Prairie State Energy Campus in southwest Illinois and a Southern Illinois Power Cooperative plant near Marion are the only remaining in-state customers for Illinois coal.

Many Alternatives

Traditionally coal-reliant rural electric cooperatives expect nationwide solar-energy capacity at the end of 2017 to be five times the capacity of 2012, according to a report released earlier this month by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. A group of Midwest cooperatives recently launched ruralsolarstories.org to highlight the shift toward renewable power.

“The marketplace has changed to the point that there are many alternatives in natural gas, solar, wind and energy efficiency, which are economically competitive,” said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a renewable-energy advocacy group based in Chicago.

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Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: ELPC’s Andy Olsen Questions Use Of Efficiency Funds On Broadband

 

Milwaukee Journal SentinalEnergy Dollars Would Fund Broadband Vouchers
December 3, 2016
By Thomas Content

Nearly 100,000 rural Wisconsin residents will be receiving $50 vouchers from the state if they sign up for new high-speed internet service or upgrades, under a proposal that would be funded by the state’s electricity customers using money that’s supposed to be spent promoting energy savings.

The $50 incentives, approved this past week by the state Public Service Commission, would cost $5 million and are part of more than $60 million in utility customer funds that Gov. Scott Walker’s administration wants to reallocate to expand broadband in rural areas of the state.

The broadband vouchers have come under criticism from energy-efficiency advocates as well as from the company that runs Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program, which helps utility customers save energy through discounts on LED light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances as well as other initiatives.

More than half of the money to be reallocated, $35 million, would come from reserves in the Universal Service Fund, through a bill Walker has asked the Legislature to pass in 2017 in order to expand state broadband grants. The remainder taps electric and natural gas ratepayers’ funding from the Focus on Energy program’s reserves.

The PSC on Thursday approved spending $16 million to send energy-efficiency kits to nearly 100,000 broadband customers. Of that, nearly $5 million from Focus on Energy funds would be used to fund the $50 broadband subsidies.

Focus on Energy is funded through a surcharge collected from Wisconsin electricity customers. On average, 1.1 million We Energies customers each pay $15 a year to fund the program.

PSC commissioners say the broadband voucher initiative is important to help deliver more programs in rural parts of the state where customers have paid into the program but haven’t received many services from Focus on Energy.

Elise Nelson, commission spokeswoman, said the vouchers are part of the broader kit that will be sent to rural homes, including a variety of energy-saving home devices from smart power strips to LED light bulbs to rebates for smart thermostats.

“The vouchers go hand in hand” with the energy-saving devices to be provided in the kits, she said. “We’ve got to keep up with technology, and this is the new forefront of energy efficiency in the home.”

Critics aren’t buying it.

“The Public Service Commission continues to try to fit a square peg in a round hole by using Focus on Energy to subsidize rural internet service companies,” said Andy Olsen, who works in the Madison office of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “Using Focus to fund internet subscriptions only helps people who already have broadband access. It doesn’t increase access to those who could most benefit.”

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WI State Journal: ELPC Concerned Over Use of Energy Efficiency Money On Broadband Coupons

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More Broadband Money is on the Way for Rural Wisconsin
December 2, 2016
By Judy Newman

Efforts to bring high-speed internet to rural Wisconsin residents and businesses got a double-boost on Thursday, with up to $61.5 million in additional funds being funneled toward projects to expand broadband.

Gov. Scott Walker asked the state Legislature to pass a bill that would allocate an additional $35.5 million over the next three years to make broadband more accessible to rural residents and businesses.

The proposal, to be funded by a surplus in the state’s Universal Service Fund, would triple Wisconsin’s broadband and technology investments to $52 million for the 2017 through 2019 fiscal years, Walker said.

“It will allow Wisconsin communities, especially in rural areas, to compete for jobs, improve education, and provide a higher quality of life,” the governor said.

The money includes grants to expand high-speed internet access in rural areas, and for schools and libraries to upgrade their internet access and train teachers.

Also on Thursday, the state Public Service Commission approved spending up to $26 million in the 2017 and 2018 calendar years toward new programs for rural areas that couple energy efficiency projects with broadband upgrades.

The PSC action puts broadband benefits — for the first time — into the mix of incentives offered through the Focus on Energy program for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. It also calls on internet service providers, from local companies to national giants, to offer a package of energy- and internet-related incentives.

That means, for example, rural homeowners may be able to get a $50 rebate for installing high-speed internet along with a rebate for adding a smart thermostat. “Smart thermostats use the internet to adjust the energy consumption in your home,” said Bob Seitz, executive assistant to PSC chairwoman Ellen Nowak.

The plan drew some critics.

“The Public Service Commission continues to try to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said in a statement. “Using Focus to fund internet subscriptions only helps people who already have broadband access; it doesn’t increase access to those who could most benefit.”

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ELPC’s Andy Olsen Joins Solar Groundbreaking in Wisconsin

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
David Jakubiak

Wisconsin Co-op Breaks Ground for New Solar
Small Rural Electric Cooperative Leads the Way in the Badger State

The Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Andy Olsen joined Richland Electric Cooperative for the ground breaking on the first of 12 solar farms developed as part of the Dairyland Power Cooperative solar initiative launched earlier this year. Richland Electric Cooperative’s project includes 500 kilowatts of solar generating capacity under Dairyland’s solar project. Another 100 kilowatts has been added under Richland’s Transition Energy community solar project which was announced last month.

“We commend Richland Electric Cooperative for going above and beyond the historic solar development announced by Dairyland Power Cooperative in February,” said Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Madison. “Modern, affordable solar power technology is here and is ready to serve the members of Richland Electric Cooperative.”

For more details on the announcement, visit the Dairyland Power Press Room.

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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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

ELPC Presents at USDA’s Forum on Rural Energy for America

???????????????????????????????On Friday, Feb. 6th, ELPC Senior Policy Advocate Andy Olsen spoke at the USDA’s National Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) Stakeholder Forum, which outlined program improvements since REAP’s recent overhaul and highlighted stakeholder successes. To access a free webcast of the event, click here.

New ELPC Report: Farm Energy Success Stories (3rd Edition)

FESS_2014_CoverThe new edition of ELPC’s Farm Energy Success Stories features over a dozen projects from across the nation funded by the Farm Bill’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which ELPC has long championed.  These projects span a wide variety of technologies — including biomass, anaerobic digesters, energy efficiency, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind — that have had a positive impact on rural development.

The new Farm Bill passed earlier in 2014 provides $881 million for Energy Title programs like REAP over 10 years, benefiting small- and mid-sized farms and ranches, as well as rural small businesses. ELPC’s Farm Bill Clean Energy Team has led the charge to extend the Farm Bill’s Energy Title programs and make these programs work well on the ground.

Learn more at ELPC’s www.FarmEnergy.org.

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