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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Solar energy makes gains, but policy puts future in question

From an article by in the La Crosse Tribune:

When the sun shines, Al Schultz makes money. Specifically, the 32 photovoltaic panels on his roof turn the sun's rays into electricity that powers his home in Ebner Coulee. If he doesn't need the power, he sells it to Xcel Energy.

"There is a certain peace of mind," said the self-employed contractor. "It's kind of a nice thought to think all your power is paid for."

Schultz is one of a small but growing number of area homeowners who've taken advantage of new, cheaper solar technology, which coupled with state and federal incentives have brought residential solar electric systems within reach of more regular folks looking to lessen their dependence on fossil fuels, lower their utility bills and even make some money.

But changes on the horizon have cast a shadow over the solar industry's future in Wisconsin. . . .

"Right now it's out of reach for 90 percent of the home-owning population," said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit that promotes economically and environmentally sustainable energy in Wisconsin. . . .

Money from Focus on Energy is still available this year, but rebates will be frozen in January as FOE implements new formulas used to evaluate cost effectiveness and rebalances its portfolio of energy savings and renewables.

Program administrator William Haas said next year's renewable incentives won't be decided until early spring.

Solar advocates like Vickerman say the energy policy hierarchy, which values efficiency - use reduction - over renewables in terms of cost effectiveness, is misguided.

"However much efficiency is injected, it doesn't have any change in the resource mix," he said. "Diversifying resource mix has value."

Solar panels may reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but dollar for dollar, Haas said, high-efficiency lighting delivers better savings.

Dearing points out that his customers have already weatherized and bought high-efficiency appliances.

"Our customers call us after they've done the low-hanging fruit," he said. "We're expensive. This is big dollar stuff. This is the future."

Vickerman says the future of the solar industry depends on policy.

"If we proceed without any policy changes there won't be much happening," he said. "You'll see a number of solar installers go out of business."

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