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Alliant Energy launches community solar program with 1-megawatt Fond du Lac project
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Alliant Energy launches community solar program with 1-megawatt Fond du Lac project

Customers of Wisconsin’s second-largest utility can now invest in solar energy without having to install any panels.

Alliant Energy announced Tuesday it is offering shares in its first community solar garden, a 1-megawatt project to be built next year near Fond du Lac.

Customers throughout Alliant’s Wisconsin territory can purchase shares in the project for $1,500 per kilowatt — available in 250-watt blocks for up to 100% of their annual use. In return, residential customers will receive bill credits of 6.3 cents per kilowatt-hour for the energy generated, which is fed into the electric grid. (Commercial customers are credited 5.6 cents per kilowatt-hour.)

Regular retail rates — about 11.7 cents per kilowatt-hour for residential customers — still apply to the energy customers’ use.

Alliant anticipates it will take about 14 to 16 years to recover the initial investment, which means customers could expect a 30% to 40% return over the 20-year contract.

Ben Lipari, director of resource development, said the project is part of Alliant’s transition away from fossil fuels and also a response to customer demands.

Alliant’s plan calls for cutting half of its carbon emissions by 2030, phasing out coal-fired power by 2040 and producing carbon-neutral electricity by 2050. The company is seeking to build another 1,000 megawatts of utility-owned solar generation in the next four years.

“It’s aligning with our broader strategy as well as what they’re asking for,” Lipari said. “The key is they have an alternative.”

Alliant plans to begin construction this spring along Highway 151 just west of Hickory Road and have the project up and running by the end of next year. Alliant is leasing the land from Michels Corp., a utility contractor headquartered in Brownsville, which will also host a 250-kilowatt utility-owned solar project that’s part of another new solar initiative.

Alliant, which serves more than 475,000 customers in Wisconsin and almost 492,000 in Iowa, is developing community solar farms across its territories. Wisconsin regulators have authorized construction of up to 6 megawatts.

According to a filing with state regulators, the company plans to market the project to local businesses and about 12,000 Fond du Lac area customers “with a high green propensity.”

The company also plans to donate 62.5 kilowatts of the project to owners of 24 Habitat for Humanity homes.

Alliant is Wisconsin’s second large investor-owned utility to offer this type of community solar. Xcel Energy introduced a similar program in 2016. Though fully subscribed as of 2019, the company said it has no plans to expand beyond the current 3-megawatt cap.

Though terms vary by utility, community solar is an increasingly popular concept that allows ratepayers to purchase shares in solar farms and sell the energy produced to the utility.

It’s a way to access clean energy and the economic benefits for customers who can’t put solar panels on their roofs — either because they can’t afford the upfront costs, have too much shade, rent, or live in multi-family housing.

Because they require no fuel and generate electricity near places where it’s used, advocates say community solar projects benefit all ratepayers by avoiding the need to upgrade power lines and transformers.

Madison Gas and Electric offers a slightly different option where customers can subscribe to solar energy for a fixed rate, though for a lower upfront cost.

We Energies and its sister utility Wisconsin Public Service Corp. do not offer community solar programs for residential customers.

Regulators this fall approved a Superior Water, Light and Power proposal to develop a community solar program with several different subscription options.

According to the Public Service Commission, Wisconsin is expected to have about 8.3 megawatts of community solar power next year — about 85% of which is subscribed. By comparison, Minnesota, where legislation requires Xcel Energy to purchase power from any project that meets some basic requirements, will have more than 822 megawatts, according to the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

Fave 5: Reporter Chris Hubbuch's favorite stories of 2020

My favorite stories to write are those that require me to learn about something new and force me to see the world from a different perspective. There were many such stories to tell during this extraordinary year, though none of my top five were directly related to the pandemic.

I’d known Wisconsin was a big producer of mink pelts, but I didn’t know that most of the North American fur trade moved through a Stoughton business that traced its lineage back to the Hudson Bay Company. The folks at Saga Furs, who took over the operations of North American Fur Association, were kind enough to teach me about the business and let us photograph them.

Few landscapes have captivated me like the Driftless region, where I was fortunate enough to live for nearly 15 years. It’s an enchanting place with unrivaled beauty, and, it turns out, is also highly resilient to climate change, providing habitat for species that left other parts of southern Wisconsin with the retreating glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. Also, never pass up a chance to spend time in the woods while on the clock.

Journalists spend a lot of time writing about problems -- after all, it’s not news when a plane lands safely -- so it’s refreshing to be able to write about solutions. In this case, a very simple solution -- farming the way it was done for centuries -- fixes so much. It can help farmers turn a profit, keep soil where it belongs, protect lakes and streams, and even fight climate change. And the Gruenfelders are good people running a quality farm on some of the most scenic land in the world.

Full disclosure: for the better part of five decades many of my happiest moments have occurred while riding a bike. I’ve also seen how outdoor recreation opportunities played a role in economic development of two cities I’ve called home -- Chattanooga and La Crosse. So the prospect of developing a city-wide offroad trail network excites me for personal reasons as well as its potential to improve the quality of life for all residents.

This was one of the more difficult stories I wrote this year, largely because of the complexity of the contamination and remediation concerns but also the long history of the plant and redevelopment efforts that weren't familiar to me as a recent transplant. It didn't help that I wrote the story from my daughter's hospital room during a one-day procedure that took four days. (She's fine.)

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