The Solar City

The city’s program helping homeowners install solar panels is paying off in Riverwest and Bay View.

By - Jul 31st, 2014 04:56 pm
Solar Panels at 2830 N. Booth St. Photo by Joe Kelly.

Solar Panels at 2830 N. Booth St. Photo by Joe Kelly.

When the city officials decided to launch their Milwaukee Shines program to install solar panels, they selected Riverwest as the pilot neighborhood. Why? City Environmental Sustainability Director Matt Howard says it just seemed like the right fit: “Riverwest has a very strong neighborhood association and they are generally known for having strong environmental ethics.”

Milwaukee Shines, the increasingly successful solar energy program led by Howard’s office, was actually founded in 2008, the same year in which the U.S. Department of Energy named Milwaukee one of 25 Solar American Cities. Milwaukee Shines has been working to facilitate solar installations citywide ever since. “We’re always looking for new ways to assist businesses and residences to adopt renewable energy sources,” Howard says.

Their main course of action, however, has been through their flagship group buy program, which Howard jokingly calls “the Costco method”, a buying-in-bulk approach to solar installation that focuses not on a single home, but on a neighborhood. Group buying streamlines the whole process and makes solar panel installation, which can be a complicated, expensive endeavor, as easy and affordable as possible. “Group purchasing just takes a little stress off of residences not only on the upfront cost of investment, but also with acquiring some of the know-how,” Howard notes.

The process is remarkably simple. Amy Heart, the Solar Program Manager with Milwaukee Shines, says the first step is information based. For the Riverwest program, Milwaukee Shines teamed up with the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance to help handle the marketing and educational facets of the effort. “We held nine, hour-long solar info sessions over about two to three months and ended up reaching about 250 people. We basically created a customer pipeline to get people informed and get installers to homes as easily as possible,” Heart says.

These info sessions involved getting interested parties familiarized with installers, how solar technology works, the obvious benefits of said technologies, and the upfront cost of installation.The latter was subsidized by a flexible, low interest loan plan in partnership with Summit Credit Union. Many of the interested residents that came to info sessions already had a certain level of savvy regarding solar technologies, which validated Howard’s idea that Riverwest was the right neighborhood to begin the program.

The next step is getting a site assessment to see if installation is feasible. If sites are in the same areas, the group-buying program really starts to show its benefit by lowering the total cost: there is a price break if the total installation for the program exceeds 50 kW. That total cost, in the long term, is offset by an average seven year return on initial investment. Milwaukee Shines also offers expedited, same-day solar permits that cost $70, something Heart says is unheard of nationally.

Solar Riverwest, the first of Milwaukee Shines neighborhood-based group buys, was completed last fall with a total of 17 homes clocking in at 53 kW of juice. These numbers were well above expectation, making it a huge success overall.

One of these residents was Steve Jerbi, the pastor at All Peoples Church in Riverwest. He had solar panels installed on his home on North Booth Street during the Solar Riverwest campaign. “It was really only through Milwaukee Shines that this became a reality for us,” he says. “And it was great because with the group buy program I save more money the more my neighbors invest.” Jerbi now is now the happy owner of a 2 kilowatt system which he says provides one third to one half of his family’s energy use.

Solar Bay View was the next big project for Milwaukee Shines. Howard and company were hoping for 20 homes and 50 kW.

Well, the sign-up results are in: 39 homeowners are installing solar; the total kilowatts on line will tally up to 148, and the average size of a system install is 3.8 kW.

Heart is thrilled: “We are so happy to have far surpassed our goals. By topping 100 kW of solar, homeowners receive an even bigger bulk discount from the installer.”

The selected installer for Solar Bay View is Arch Electric; Heart says that Milwaukee Shines also worked closely with the Milwaukee Renewable Energy Association and the Bay View Neighborhood Association to achieve such a level of success.

“It’s programs like this that are helping home and business owners discover just how affordable solar energy can be,” she says. “Milwaukee is discovering that solar is a real, viable solution to reduce energy bills while generating clean energy and cutting reliance on dirty power plants.”

After the pioneering success in Riverwest and the incredible returns in Bay View, Milwaukee Shines is encourage to continue the program — in neighborhoods yet to be named.

Categories: Real Estate

11 thoughts on “The Solar City”

  1. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    More “power to them”, they can power their tanning beds?

  2. Jerad says:

    That doesn’t even make sense. Just stop trolling.

  3. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Facetious. Solar in Wisconsin is a myth. Does not work at least 70% of time so if you can do without light or heat go solar. Will work in day so can use for your solar bed.

  4. Paul Miller says:

    If they can do solar in the Nordic and Baltic countries, then it can also work in Wisconsin. Hell, Finland just unveiled a giant industrial center that gets much of its power from solar generation. It’s not a complete solution, but combined with other sources, solar cuts costs and moves everyone in a more sustainable direction.

    Of course some folks are already committed to rejecting the possibility the same way they reject wind farms–also something the state could use more of.

  5. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Come on Conservative! Sometimes you actually say though provoking things. Now you’re just trolling. You know Germany is the #1 solar county right now, right? Good lord.

  6. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I am happy that they are doing in and have studied Germany at length and know all of the problems that they are having trying to co-ordinate the steady electricity and the intermittent solar and win. Does’nt work and it is costly. Who has done cost benefit analysis of this project? Capital costs, output savings?

  7. Adam says:

    Increased self-sufficiency, local control, and reducing reliance on the monopoly known as WE Energies who’s power sources come from out of state and out of country, are things you would think would appeal to a conservative. Such is the dysfunction with our political system- if you identify as a conservative renewable energy=bad, no room for discussion, no gray areas, just bad. Is renewable energy subsidized, yes but so is fossil fuel energy. Are there storage issues and plenty of other technical issues, yes but that is the case in all emerging fields, and they will be resolved over time. Having a more diverse energy portfolio that produces more energy locally is good for everyone long term.

  8. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Did not condemn, if people want to do it fine, just does not make economic sense. go for it.

  9. Paul Miller says:

    In your cost-benefit analysis, WCD, don’t forget to include all of the negative externalities associated with non-sustainable energy sources, like coal. The problem with conventional economic analysis is that it tends to worry about short-term cost while ignoring long-term costs and those harder-to-measure but still tangible problems, like the bad health effects of air pollution, not to mention the evils of mining as an industry.

    Not everything we do should be pursued solely because it is cheaper. You can eat McDonald’s and ramen noodles every day, and that’s certainly cheap but eventually that benefit gets overridden by all the negatives. Eventually healthy food makes a lot more sense even if it is slightly more expensive. We need to look at energy the same way.

  10. David Ciepluch says:

    Solar electric panels are one of the best investments that can be made with a 10% annual return and better than the majority of Wall Street investments. Pricing of the panels and installation are at parity with utility provided electricity to the consumer. That is why utilities fear and advocate for blocking increased production from solar sources and place obstacles in the consumers path. Utilities know that peak demand production from solar panels will directly compete with their higher priced peak time 9 AM to 6 PM fossil electric production during the summer months.

    Utilities could take an alternative path and buy into the consumer owned panels along with energy efficiency. This would cut into over $12 Billion annually that is exported for fossil fuels for production of electricity. The reduction in export purchasing would further spur the local economies by putting more money into consumers pockets. Wisconsin as a whole generates less than 3% of electric energy from renewable in state sources. An electric grid can technically handle about 25% generation from renewable sources. We have a long way to go. States to the west of us like Iowa, and Minnesota are nearing or at that 25% level.

    A true educated conservative would understand these economic principles of efficiency, local production, more power in the consumers hands, and that every dollar saved locally causes twice the churn of the that dollar.

  11. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Put those numbers on paper. I eat at Burger King and Campbell noodle soup.

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