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Meanwhile at Dane County Regional Airport…

Krishna Elwell - Monona Grove High School Junior

Solar panels are producing energy at the Dane County Regional Airport.

The energy transition isn’t our tomorrow, it’s already happening today.

There’s a new solar array in Madison. Panels are producing energy in Fitchburg. Manitowoc, and Dodgeville. The largest solar farm in the state is under construction near Cambridge. Across the state, as across the country, new sources of energy are being constructed, and within one’s lifetime, they will sweep the nation.

Specifically, I’m focused on the Dane County Regional Airport’s Solar Array. A research project of mine for my science class, what I found revealed the future of energy in Wisconsin. It led me down a path of contacting government and MGE officials, expanded my scope of sustainability in Wisconsin, and made me reconsider the opportunities my future could afford. I will show you what I found, and portray the future that this science assignment let me uncover.

Completed in December 2020, the array is located on the Northeastern end of the Dane County Regional Airport. Prior to that, it had been a farm for several years. Due to FAA regulations, such an area so close to an airport could only be a field or an array. The latter came true after Madison Gas & Electric (MGE) and the County Government formed an agreement in 2019. Erected during the onset of the pandemic, the 31,000-panel array provides 10 MegaWatts per hour. Estimates put its generation capacity at roughly 18,000 MegaWatts per year, enough to power 40% of the county’s municipal facilities. Furthermore, the panels are bifacial. This allows them to adjust to the sun’s trajectory and additionally makes for snow to easily slide off in the depths of Wisconsin’s winters.

Dane County Solar field

This array resulted from MGE’s Renewable Energy Rider (RER) Program, which connects consumers to power produced by clean technologies. This program was able to utilize the mutual interest of both the Dane County Government and MGE. The former seeks to be carbon neutral by 2050 and consequently has overseen the development of renewable energy projects across the County. MGE likewise aims to be net-zero emissions by the same year, supplying customers with clean energy.

Kathy Kuntz, the Director of the Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change oversaw this project’s initiation from the government perspective. Yet, it was more than her perspective that saw a win in this project, as she explained, “The people who are concerned about finances see a win, and the people concerned with algae in lakes see a win, and there is an advantage when everyone sees a win in this.” Her comments echo an essential refrain, that the energy transition is advantageous not simply to politicians or corporations, but to entire communities.

Within its first few years, its benefits have superseded estimates, and have even introduced a new dimension to the advantages of solar.

Solar power requires considerable upfront costs. However, it is undoubtedly cost-effective, and therefore more affordable in the long run much like any other investment. For Dane County, the project required “no upfront costs” according to Kathy Kuntz. The county simply leased the land to MGE, which built the array and provided the local government with discount energy prices. Due to this, the County is reported to have saved $113,000 in 2022 alone, and savings are expected to compound in time. Furthermore, MGE has much to gain as well. The utility company achieved a 25-year contract for the sale of its energy, securing the government as a stable customer. Additionally, with solar energy touting a 10-20% profit margin nationwide, the utility company has also proven a new business model. There is a growing market and financial incentive for renewable energies. The energy transition isn’t charitable only for the environment, but charitable for one’s wallet as well.

Indeed, the array has bolstered the local environment as well. The emissions curtailed from entering the atmosphere would equal the burning of 7,000 tons of coal, or the exhaust of 2,700 cars. Yet the wins extend beyond emissions reduction. The field used for the array doubles as a pollinator habitat, home to monarch butterflies and honey bees native to Wisconsin. While honey bees are pretty sweet, what’s even greater is the chemical runoff prevented from gushing into Madison’s lakes. When computer models were first generated for the array, preventing chemical runoff wasn’t even considered, and the Dane County Land & Water Department is currently endeavoring to calculate its scope.

While their results will exhibit the significance of this project’s scope, the scope of the energy transition nationwide is unimaginable. Last year, the enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) supercharged such enterprises in every State in the Union. The legislation introduced ‘direct-pay’ tax credits, a promise by the Federal Government to pay for 30% of complying municipal projects. It’s one among the numerous incentives passed to spur the development of efficient, economical energy projects across the nation. It establishes a defined route toward a sustainable future. For Dane County in particular, Kathy Kuntz has given several presentations to local government and business officials, stating “Ultimately the IRA will make a lot more solar happen across communities because it’s more affordable… It's exciting!”

Moreover, I spoke to an MGE official who announced an interest in the legislation as well. John Armstrong, a renewable engineer, stated that MGE is “currently diving into the Inflation Reduction Act to see how it impacts future solar projects.” With this sentiment in mind, solar power has vastly expanded its reach across Wisconsin. MGE has erected four new arrays, Hermsdorf, O’Brien, Badger Hollow, and Two Creeks producing 8, 22, 300, and 150 Megawatts per hour respectively. As 100 Megawatts would power roughly 16,400 households on average, the combined power produced from those solar arrays could generate electricity for 75,000-80,000 homes.

This is not tomorrow, this is now.

Being sustainable isn’t good only for the environment, but also for one’s wallet.

This is the change that is happening in my lifetime.

There are certainly drawbacks to renewable energies. The debate of energy’s future is widely debated across the nation as across the world, in every community. Solar arrays, especially for household consumers, require considerable upfront costs and are rewarding mainly as long-term investments. The shocks of last year’s energy crisis still maintain a ripple effect, proving the need for energy independence and a continuing, if declining, use of fossil fuels in the short term. While the array at the Dane County Regional Airport and so many others display the oncoming of a sustainable, more affordable generation of power production, there are indeed many points to consider along the way.

Wix photo

The best way to see this change is to reach out. Talk to the people in your community, city board members, utility employees, or even your neighbors and your family members. This is how my story began, and from a high school Junior to anyone else, this can be how your story begins as well. The good news is, I have a tremendous opportunity for you to get in the know…

The Monona Public Library is hosting ‘Eco-Action Tuesdays’ to give anyone a hands-on feel with sustainability. You have a front-row seat to the future, and if you want to get in on local innovation then come to the next Eco-Action Tuesday on April 25th! It will begin at 6:30 PM, and there will be refreshments and a door prize! Anyone is welcome, so I’ll make sure to save you a seat at the Monona Public Library!

We’ll see the future of tomorrow, today.

Krishna Elwell is a Junior at Monona Grove High School


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