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Home Solar Expects Continued Boom in Local Installations, Jobs in 2021

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Earlier this month, Isaiah Miller and Ryan Van Dyke made their very last home solar installation until the spring, just in time to avoid the harshest cold and snow.

They climbed a slanted, shingled roof in Rib Mountain to install a few more solar panels.

“We are currently setting down the last seven modules for this system,” Miller said as he braced himself against the roof’s slope.

The system will be able to generate 4.3 kilowatts of solar power, which could be enough to provide electricity to the entire home.

“You basically just need to turn it on and forget about it,” Miller said.

Miller and Van Dyke work for Amherst-based Northwind Solar, and they’re busy.

Crews average two or three residential solar installations per week in the local area.

Miller likes working outside, with his hands, doing something that’s good for the earth.

“I know that we are offsetting carbon emissions every system we put in,” he said.

Miller and Van Dyke are part of a growing solar workforce, which totals nearly 3,000 Wisconsin jobs, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

That number of jobs is rising alongside a soaring interest in solar power in Wisconsin. According to SEIA projections, in five years, the state will be producing nine times as much solar energy as it does today.

Some of Northwind Solar’s installations are through Grow Solar Central Wisconsin, a program in Lincoln, Marathon, Portage, and Wood counties offering extra incentives to homeowners.

So far, there have been 174 local solar installations through the program, with panels producing as much power as the burning of more than a million pounds of coal per year.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Cathy Ordemann, who installed solar panels on her Merrill-area home this year.

Cathy Ordemann can see the impact right in her hand.

She’s looking at a phone app showing the energy produced by the solar panels on the roof of her house near Merrill.

“It feels good to have them, but you kind of forget about them once they’re up,” Ordemann said.

Northwind Solar installed the system this summer, and Ordemann is already seeing the savings.

As a scientist, she’s wanted a solar-power system for years.

“Whenever I look at anything I do on my house, what can help lower my carbon footprint? What [is] better for the earth?” she said.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Northwind Solar installs solar systems through Grow Solar Central Wisconsin in Lincoln, Marathon, Wood, and Portage counties.

Ordemann is part of a rapidly growing base of people with home solar, far broader than the small number of supporters just a few years ago.

“It was just this very niche topic and topic and concept. Kind of only hippies were interested in it,” said Jordan Pupols, the events manager of the Wisconsin-based Midwest Renewable Energy Association.

Credit MREA
Jordan Pupols, the events manager of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.

“You kind of had to have that status of a hippie to be interested in solar energy.”

Snow sometimes seems more abundant than sun in northern Wisconsin. But, thanks in part to a 70 percent drop in installation costs in the last decade, Pupols says solar is an excellent choice.

“It’s a very standard question question to ask, whether solar is actually viable when you’re this far north of the equator,” she said. “The answer is a resounding yes. Like, resounding yes.”

Investment in solar is likely to only accelerate in the near future.

One projection shows Wisconsin will go from producing 237 megawatts of solar power to 2,000 megawatts in just the next five years.

Most home solar systems now pay for themselves in energy savings in a dozen years, at most.

“You used to have to invest in solar because you cared about the environment. Now, you invest in solar because it makes economic sense to do so,” Pupols said. “It’s a good investment.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The solar panels on the roof of the Tomahawk-area home of Rita and Marty Webb.

Both environmental and economic concerns led Rita and Marty Webb to install solar at their Tomahawk-area home last year.

Rita was all in, but Marty took some prodding.

“I always liked the idea of solar, it’s just, you’ve got to convince me that it’s going to work here,” he said.

The Webbs’ home in Tomahawk gets plenty of sun, and the couple could use local and state financial incentives on top of a federal tax credit covering a quarter of the installation cost.

Now, during summer months, their panels actually produce more electricity than they can use, so they sell it back to the power grid.

“I’m doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do, and it will save us a little something,” Marty Webb said.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Workers hoist solar panels in one of the final installations of the year.

Webb may once have been something of a solar skeptic.

But now, he’s spreading the word.

Marty convinced his brother, John, to install a solar array on his house next door.

“This just seems like a no-brainer. It’s a little thing to do, but it seemed like an easy thing to do,” he said.

Advocates believe 2021 will bring more solar installation than any year in history.

It’s the last year of a federal tax credit which refunds 22 percent of the cost of residential systems.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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