UWRF considers investing in River Falls community solar program

Posted November 10, 2015

A new community solar program is coming to River Falls in which residents and businesses, along with the University of Wisconsin, can subscribe to renewable energy.

The Community Solar Program, operated by the River Falls Municipal Utilities, will allow residents and businesses in the city to purchase subscriptions to solar panels in a community solar garden. Subscribers will own the energy output of the panels and receive a credit on their monthly utility bill for how much energy the panels produce, according to the program.

The cost of one solar panel through the program is $567, with no additional costs for maintenance or upkeep. A subscription lasts 20 years, with the energy output of one panel approximating 315 kilowatts, equaling the energy produced by about 252 pounds of coal each year, according to River Falls Municipal Utilities.

River Falls is the first city government in Wisconsin to have a community solar program, according to Mike Noreen, conservation and efficiency coordinator for River Falls Municipal Utilities. He said that the program gives individuals and businesses an opportunity to invest in renewable energy that was not previously available and builds upon the city’s goal of developing a conservation ethic within the community.

“We are always promoting the city, the community as a clean energy alternative, kind of a green community,” Noreen said. “This is a good visual reminder that we’re clean and that we’re progressive and innovative.”

The solar garden is under construction at the Sterling Ponds Corporate Park off of Highway 35, north of downtown. A total of 807 solar panels will be installed. So far 60 subscriptions have been purchased since the program started in October, with more coming in daily, according to Noreen. A number of individuals and businesses also have committed to buying subscriptions.

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls is one of those commitments, with both the university and Student Senate discussing the possibilities of buying panels.

According to Mike Stifter, executive director of facilities planning and management at UWRF, the university is looking to purchase 15-25 panels in order to “walk the talk” when it comes to working to make the campus more sustainable.

This is not the first time that UWRF has gotten involved in city sustainability initiatives. The university currently invests in the Renewable Energy Block Program, in which residents and businesses in River Falls pay an extra $3 per month on their utility bill for a block of renewable energy that is used instead of other nonrenewable energy options. The money then gets reinvested in “new, energy-efficient alternatives that will help control energy costs in the future,” according to the City of River Falls website.

The university has been a part of the Renewable Energy Block Program for about 10 years, said Stifter, and will continue to invest as it becomes involved in the Community Solar Program, although perhaps not to as much of an extent as in the past.

“It’s a great program, it’s a program we’ll continue to participate in, but it’s a hard one to describe,” Stifter said. “You can’t wrap your arms around it, you can’t point to it as you’re driving down the road. In this case, you can say that solar park over there, we have an investment in that. It’s a very tangible project, and yet another demonstration and illustration in terms of trying to walk the talk in supporting a very worthy effort in sustainability.”

Noreen said that the university has been a great partner when it comes to sustainability efforts, and that UWRF has been one of the biggest buyers for the Renewable Energy Block Program.

“Because the university has been so aggressive in reducing their carbon footprint and adopting renewable energy, that’s one of the main reasons why we got this (Community Solar) program,” said Noreen.

UWRF Student Senate also is looking at investing in the Community Solar Program. Brady Murphy, director of external relations, said that he believes that Senate will approve the purchase of a solar panel because it fits in well with Senate’s focus on sustainability this year.

“This place is very dedicated to sustainability and I think that’s something we should be very proud of,” Murphy said. “And as representatives of students who chose this school, it’s only fitting.”

Noreen said that the Community Solar Program is an opportunity for people to really put their money where their mouth is when it comes to becoming more sustainable and to take pride in the fact that they are part of the solution.

“If they want to fight climate change, if they want to fight environmental degradation, this is a way to do it,” Noreen said. “And it’s a community effort, we want everyone to participate, whether it’s a small or large purchase.”

Construction on the solar garden has started a few weeks ago and will ideally be completed by Dec. 1, Noreen said, with customers starting to see credit on their utility bills in early 2016.