Cost effectiveness of solar, other renewables expected to keep improving

Energy experts say the cost effectiveness of solar and other renewables will continue on its positive trend as technology evolves.

“It was again the best year for solar energy in Wisconsin, and that’s for the third year in a row,” said RENEW Wisconsin Executive Director Tyler Huebner, who spoke at the RENEW Wisconsin Renewable Energy Summit yesterday in Madison. “We’re continuing to grow — we’re seeing growth in residential, business and utility sectors.”

He stressed the jobs being created as a result: construction workers building solar arrays and wind farms, wind farm operators, biogas developers and many others.

“As we think about building big solar farms and big wind farms, to me there’s this huge win-win opportunity to get the parts from the Wisconsin manufacturers,” he said. “We’re making these parts here, let’s build them in Wisconsin and put them in projects in Wisconsin.”

Dan Krueger is senior vice president of wholesale energy & fuels at WEC Energy Group, one of the biggest utility holding companies in the country, and the largest in Wisconsin. He says WEC’s long-term goal is to stay with a diversified fuel portfolio: one-third coal, one-third natural gas, one-third zero emissions technology — including nuclear and wind.

“We do think there could be adjustments in that as economics evolve,” he said. “The good news for renewables, that is one-third of our energy, so we have quite a bit of room to run.”

Jeff Keebler, CEO of Madison Gas and Electric, says times have changed with the lower cost of renewable energy. Ten years ago, utilities were investing in renewables to fulfill renewable portfolio standards, which were required by law.

“Now what you’re seeing is with technology change, we don’t necessarily need those policies as much as we did once before,” Keebler said. “We’re all up here investing in renewable technology because it’s cost effective.”

MISO, or Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc., runs the transmission system for the Midwest, part of Canada and part of the southern United States.

“If you want to build a big solar or a big wind farm, you’ve got to get in line and see how much it costs to interconnect at different places,” Huebner said.

Krueger says WEC looks at the MISO market as part of its long-term resource planning.

“What kept coming up for us was the least-cost resource, to our surprise, shifted over the years from natural gas to utility-scale solar,” Krueger said. “We’re looking at capacity resources as our primary need, in the mid- and long-term planned horizons for WEC, and for us the clear winner in that case is utility-scale solar.”

Looking ahead, Huebner says the MISO queue for proposed projects shows major promise for renewable energy of all kinds.

“If you looked at this map maybe two years ago, there was maybe five spots on the map,” he said. “And now there’s over a dozen solar projects and half a dozen wind projects. Right now in Wisconsin we have about 80 megawatts of solar total… in the queue alone is 20 times that.”

He calls this change “a landmark shift” in the type and amount of solar energy that could be built in Wisconsin over the next five years.

“Not all of this will get built, but the potential is there for a huge step-change in solar, and we’re very excited about that… wind as well,” Huebner said.

–By Alex Moe