Community Engagement
Distributed Energy Resources

Cultivating our community solar gardens

During my first year as CEO, I am doing my best to get out and speak to as many different member groups as I can. As part of my 2014 World Tour," I went last week to the Wisconsin Dells, to speak to the annual meeting of WPPI Energy. WPPI is a great joint action agency that serves 51 public power distribution utilities in Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.

I expected the usual Wisconsin experience of cheeseheads, Packer jerseys, and Badger sweatshirts, but I was in for a big surprise. WPPI held its meeting at the Kalahari Resort, which has an African theme, and the resort certainly goes all in on it — from the elephant leg tables to the close-to-full-size bronze rhino statues. It also has a huge indoor water park, which I was told is a big attraction for Wisconsin parents with stir-crazy children during the depths of the long winters. The children of Wisconsin clearly have many more play options during the winter now than Laura Ingalls did in the days of the Little House in the Big Woods that I read aloud to my daughter when she was young!

The meeting brought home for me yet again how public power utilities are moving forward in interesting and innovative ways. WPPI CEO Mike Peters and Board Chair Jeff Feldt during the first morning session discussed WPPI's new pilot project to develop community solar gardens. I have been very interested in these installations, because they seem like a good deal all around to me — good for the residential customers who subscribe to a panel, since they do not have the hassle of having solar panels installed on their own house, but get the benefit of locally-produced solar power — and good for the utilities, since they can operate and maintain the garden, thus better managing the reliability and rate impacts of the facility.

Nine WPPI member distribution utilities applied to be one of the first two utilities to have such a solar garden in their communities through WPPI's pilot program. Mike and Jeff discussed the high quality of the applications they had gotten, and how hard it had been to pick the winning two. They then announced that the successful utilities were New Richmond Utilities and River Falls Municipal Utilities.

This all sounded great to me, but I was even more interested to note that during the question and answer session that followed, a gentlemen from one of the seven systems that had not been selected stood up to express his disappointment. He noted that his utility wanted to move forward as quickly as possible to have its own solar facility even though it had not been chosen to be part of the pilot. Mike promised that WPPI would work with his utility to assist it.

This level of enthusiasm was very gratifying to me. The Inside-the-Beltway experts sometimes talk about public power as being behind the times, and not in touch with trends in our industry such as distributed generation. But public power systems are locally owned and respond to the needs and interests of the citizens that own them. My trip to Wisconsin brought that home to me yet again, and gave me the opportunity to experience a little bit of Africa, Dells style, as well. My thanks to WPPI for inviting me to come and speak."