Tyler Huebner grew up in Iowa. While attending an event in middle school, he saw two wind turbines helping power a building.
“That was kind of the first time I had ever thought about wind energy,” Huebner said. “I thought it was kind of cool.”
Huebner went on to earn two engineering degrees. A Bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the University of Iowa and a graduate degree in civil and environmental engineering from Stanford University.
“They had a program there (at Stanford) that was specifically focused on renewable energy,” Huebner said.
Today, Huebner works as the Executive Director of Renew Wisconsin.
“We’re a nonprofit organization whose goal is to increase and accelerate the renewable energy produced in Wisconsin and used in Wisconsin,” Huebner said. “We do that work through education as well as policy and advocacy work to make the rules promote renewable energy and make sure (alternatives) have a fair opportunity to grow their markets.”
One common objection to renewable energy is the cost. But falling prices and creative business models are changing that, Huebner said.
“Sauk County was able to take advantage of some outsized financing to help them get the solar panels on their buildings,” Huebner said. “That’s a model we’d like to see more widely available and used in the state of Wisconsin.”
Sauk County coordinated with the Iowa based company Eagle Point Solar to install the solar panels on its buildings. Eagle Point owns the solar equipment used on the buildings that Sauk County pays to use.
“The money that they’re saving, because now they’re buying less electricity from the power company… is more than what their lease payments are,” Huebner said. “They can either buy the panels themselves or continue to lease it over time, but they’re expected to save a significant amount of money over the life of the project.”
Another Sauk County building with solar panels is Reedsburg Area High School. The panels were first installed in 2009.
Learning to change
Science Teacher Amy Workman teaches her students the benefits of thinking about energy consumption and conservation.
“I have two environmental science classes, and one of the units we do in Environmental Science is energy,” Workman said. “Specifically it looks at how energy is produced, how it is used, how we personally use energy on a daily basis (and) what, if any is our responsibility to conserve energy.”
Workman’s students have a final project looking at one particularly energy challenged part of the United States: Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Rico had a particular energy production and distribution system before Hurricane Maria,” Workman said. “But after Hurricane Maria, everybody saw on the news how Puerto Rico was without power for eight months. Eighty percent of the island was in complete dark.”
Workman’s students are tasked with finding an ideally designed energy system for the challenged island “knowing it’s a tropical island that will probably experience a hurricane at some point in the future,” Workman said. Students submit a final project recommending an energy production and energy access strategy for Puerto Rico.
Students working on the Puerto Rico Project coordinated with UW-Stevens Point’s K-12 Energy Education Program and members of the Reedsburg Utility Commission.
The participation of the Reedsburg Utility Commission localized the idea of energy consumption for students by detailing the city’s water use and management.
“There probably will be big changes in the future due to climate change in how we produce energy across the country,” Workman said.
Workman’s students learn how to read an electric meter, gas meter and water meter.
Students are asked to identify one area of energy conservation they could personally implement.
“It’s a very comprehensive look at energy, from the personal to the global,” Workman said.
Renewable energy is talked about more than it used to be, but it’s hardly a new concept. In Wisconsin Dells and Prairie du Sac, renewables have been a part of daily life for more than a hundred years.
The Kilbourn Dam in Wisconsin Dells produces 10 megawatts of energy — enough for 10,000 homes — while the Prairie du Sac Dam produces three times that amount.
“We’ve been operating since 1909,” said Alliant Energy Site Manager for Hydroelectric and Gas Generation Amanda Blank. “It’s the oldest plant in our company. Along with Prairie du Sac, those were the two original companies that formed Wisconsin Power and Light which is now part of Alliant Energy, so we’re really the history and beginning of our company here.”
Originally, the energy produced at the Prairie du Sac Dam helped power the Milwaukee streetcar.
“People here didn’t have the option to have electricity in their homes,” Blank said. “They didn’t have any connections.”
Hydroelectric energy has a number of advantages over other energy sources.
“There’s no emissions,” Blank said. “So really it’s about as clean as it can get… We’re just harnessing energy potential energy that’s already there to be had. Another thing I think that’s pretty special about it (is) we don’t have to buy fuel.”
About 35 miles north of the Kilbourn dam, a newer form of renewable energy is powering homes in the Necedah area.
The Oakdale Electric Cooperative, part of La Crosse based Dairyland Power Cooperative, partnered with SoCore in 2017 to install more than a thousand solar panels in the Necedah area.
Oakdale Electric Cooperative Director of Energy Services Todd O’Neil said solar is becoming a more viable option.
“This is pretty competitive,” O’Neil said. “We expect, with inflation, this will end up being cheaper than what we’re buying power for.”
O’Neil said partnering with other energy companies makes projects like the Necedah solar farm more feasible.
For landowners, solar power creates an opportunity to convert unused acreage and sunlight into profit.
“It seems like a more productive use of the land,” O’Neil said. “(We’re) generating quite a bit of energy.”
Farmers looking to diversify their product could turn to solar as a reliable income stream.
“It would be diversifying to their crop mix,” O’Neil said. “A decade ago, that might not have been economically feasible but it’s getting better and better as panels come down in cost.”
University of Wisconsin Professor Biological Systems Engineering Douglas Reinemann co-teaches a class dubbed Renewable Energy Systems with a UW colleague. He was also the chair of the Energy Analysis and Policy Program at UW for seven years during the early 2000s.
Reinemann agreed with O’Neil on solar power’s growing applicability. “Solar is a new one on the block because pricing of it has made it a little more attainable over the years,” Reinemann said. “Wisconsin has been pretty progressive in terms of residential rooftop solar. But that comes in small little bits.”
Interest in renewable energy appears to be growing as prices drop. Huebner said the Renewable Energy Summit is bigger every year.
Governor Tony Evers attended the latest summit.
“The industry is getting bigger and more people are getting excited about renewable energy,” Huebner said. “And Wisconsin is in a really good position. We’re behind the average state in the amount of renewable energy we’ve got in place but we do have advantages in that the costs have really gone down a lot and as we add more solar and more wind it’s going to be done in a more cost effective manner.”