Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

City Shines Light On Solar Project

Largest solar array in Milwaukee could be operational by end of 2020.

By - Mar 3rd, 2020 05:38 pm
Solar panel at 1600 E. College Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Solar panel at 1600 E. College Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

City, military and We Energies officials gathered Tuesday afternoon to celebrate the approval of a plan to build the largest solar array in Milwaukee.

We Energies will develop and operate a 7,000 solar panel array on a city-owned, covered landfill at 1600 E. College Ave. Located on the edge of Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, the 2.25 megawatt array will have the capacity to power approximately 400 homes.

Mayor Tom Barrett said it’s part of his “all of the above” approach to meeting a 2025 target of having 25 percent of the city’s energy generated from renewable sources. “We are dead serious about meeting that goal and this is a significant step towards that,” said Barrett. The array is the biggest single project the city has undertaken towards the goal.

Alderman Scott Spiker, 13th District representative, said he was happy to have the project in the Garden District. The first-year alderman said the array builds on a number of environmental sustainability initiatives in the area.

“We could not have picked a better site,” said Spiker. Owned by the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee, the site is virtually impossible to develop according to city officials because the clay-covered landfill does not offer stable ground and continues to settle. But the site’s next door neighbor, the Wisconsin Air National Guard is happy to have it.

“We are thrilled with the public awareness that connects mission readiness with energy assurance,” said Commander James Locke. The base will tap into the array as an emergency source of power in the event of a grid outage. The site is already surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and an access road is protected by a guard station. Barrett called the built-in security and partnership with the Air National Guard “fortuitous.”

“We anticipate to begin this summer and wrap up later this year,” said city Environmental Collaboration Office director Erick Shambarger. SunVest Solar will build the array for We Energies.

A SunVest representative told Urban Milwaukee the installation would be made with 72-cell solar panels from Trina Solar. The landfill does present one complication for the installation: the ground cannot be punctured with anchors and instead the panels will rely on ballast blocks to hold them in place.

We Energies will pay for the cost of the array through its state-authorized Solar Now program. The program allows the utility to offer up to 2.25 megawatts of solar panels to customers, with a program-wide cap of 35 megawatts. It will maintain ownership of the electricity generated and feed it into the grid. The city will claim the renewable energy certificates associated with the array, allowing it to be the sole entity able to claim the solar power. Such credits are commonly bought when corporations want to meet sustainability goals but cannot produce the power themselves.

The utility will make lease payments of approximately $100,000 annually based on the power generated and other regulatory factors. That annual payment is expected to be approximately $13,000 higher after Ald. Robert Bauman introduced an amendment to the proposal that will delay its authorization until after a regulatory authority issues an increased “cost of new energy” value in June.

The Common Council’s Public Works Committee spent over an hour reviewing the proposal two weeks ago in a hearing that was contentious and included pleas by one alderman for better behavior. But the project didn’t even get discussed Tuesday by the full Common Council, which unanimously approved the project.

It will join a combined 210 kilowatts of solar power installed atop three city libraries last year. The city sparred with We Energies over that proposal, ultimately downsizing it while a vendor contests the utility in court. The city also operates a single wind turbine near the Port Milwaukee building between Lake Michigan and the Hoan Bridge.

The city currently spends approximately $4 million on electricity and natural gas for buildings, $3.5 million on street lights, and $6 million on power for the Milwaukee Water Works.

It’s possible the Solar Now solar array will be just the first installation on the 44-acre site. Shambarger said his office would continue to study other options to leverage the site for solar power.

For more detail on the nuances and potential complications of the deal, see our coverage from February 20th.

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