Do efficiency standards create manufacturing jobs?

High-efficiency water heaters are manufactured at a factory in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo via GE)

High-efficiency water heaters are manufactured at a factory in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo via GE)

The 2009 federal stimulus program put thousands of contractors and tradespeople to work weatherizing low-income homes and retrofitting government buildings.

A new report by a Wisconsin nonprofit suggests such investments in energy efficiency may also play a role in growing manufacturing jobs, too.

The Energy Center of Wisconsin (ECW) study was able to trace a direct link between six utility conservation programs and 46 manufacturers in the Great Lakes region.

“The finding that, at a minimum, dozens of manufacturing operations in the Great Lakes Region benefit from the small group of utility programs we examined suggests that the economic effects are widespread and could be substantial,” the report says.

The companies supplying products to utility-sponsored efficiency projects ranged from insulation manufacturers to makers of high-tech lighting and controls.

“I think that this is the tip of the iceberg,” the report’s author, Joe Kramer, said of the 46 regional manufacturers that he was able to identify.

The ECW is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Numbers difficult to pin down

Kramer, a senior project manager at the ECW, had hoped to survey several conservation program administrators about their contractors and suppliers, and then interview those companies about the products they use before ultimately identifying where those materials and equipment were made.

Getting program administrators to disclose information about who they work with turned out to be more challenging than expected, so he instead relied on limited information from six utilities’ commercial retrofit programs in Illinois and Michigan.

The utilities included ComEd, Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, NICOR Gas, North Shore Gas and Peoples Gas.

The manufacturers that benefited from those utility’s programs stretched from Minneapolis to Philadelphia. They include two insulation makers, 16 HVAC and control businesses, and 28 companies that make lighting and controls.

“This is a really, really conservative list,” Kramer said. “The problem is we can’t say what proportion or percentage this might be of the overall manufacturers involved.”

The study also wasn’t able to quantify how many sales manufacturers received as a result of utility-sponsored conservation programs.

Answering that question will require more cooperation from utility program administrators, who were reluctant to reveal their supply chain, and reasonably so, Kramer said. Many utilities hire other organizations to manage their efficiency programs, and these managers may have felt they needed permission to share that information.

Others may have simply been too busy to compile the information, or skeptical about sharing it with competitors, Kramer said.

Made in the U.S.A.

A 2012 report from the Center for American Progress said more than 89 percent of materials used by the federal Weatherization Assistance Program are made in the United States, including 98 percent of vinyl windows, 94 percent of furnaces, and 90 percent of spray foam insulation.

The Energy Center survey identified a total of 82 manufacturing locations that produced materials or equipment for the utility programs. About 56 percent were located in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. The rest were elsewhere in the United States or out of the country.

All 13 of the manufacturers associated with DTE Energy’s commercial retrofit were based in Michigan, which has a state policy encouraging utilities to buy Michigan-made.

While beyond the scope of the ECW study, Kramer speculated that one explanation for why HVAC, lighting, and related controls were sourced from Great Lakes states is that they involve higher-tech, higher-skill manufacturing that is more viable in the region, which also has several large, well-established companies in those sectors.

Insulation, meanwhile, is a lower-value product that takes up a lot of space, making it less economical to ship from long distances, he said.

The ECW report, “Utility Energy Efficiency Programs and Manufacturing Facilities: Connections in the Great Lakes Region,” can be downloaded here.

Originally published September 30, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/30/do-efficiency-standards-create-manufacturing-jobs/

Wisconsin passive house at center of co-op solar dispute

During the summer, this Wisconsin home produces more energy than it consumes. (Photo courtesy TE Studio)

The owner of this Wisconsin home says his co-op is underpaying him for energy he produces during peak summer hours. (Photo courtesy TE Studio)

Gary Konkol’s home annually produces more energy than it consumes, but his energy bill is about to go up.

Konkol is one of just eleven customers of Wisconsin’s St. Croix Electric Cooperative who own solar electric panels on their home.

A new policy that took effect in May means those homeowners will see much lower payments for the extra electricity they generate on sunny days.

For Konkol and the others, that means waiting several more years to break even on their investments — if they break even at all.

The utility, which serves about 10,000 customers in western Wisconsin, says it’s only protecting other ratepayers from subsidizing a select few.

“Unfortunately, the terms of service and [solar] rate issue has become a few members’ personal interests versus all the other cooperative members’ interests,” said Mark Pendergast, President and CEO of St. Croix Electric Cooperative, in an email to Midwest Energy News.

But solar advocates say the cooperative’s new policy doesn’t recognize the true value of customer-generated solar power.

“It isn’t fair,” Konkol said. “I would argue it’s the other way around; that we’re subsidizing the cooperative.”

The Passive House in the Woods

In 2010, Konkol built what may be the most energy efficient home in the Midwest. St. Croix Electric Cooperative actually sponsored the construction, waiving a standard $2,000 new hook-up fee for the passive house, which attracted local and national media coverage.

The 2,000-square-foot, two-story walkout just outside of Hudson, Wisconsin, features thick insulation, high-performance windows and no furnace whatsoever. A single solar thermal panel and a 4.52 kW photovoltaic system produce all the energy the home needs — and then some.

Under the policy in place at the time Konkol built the home, that extra electricity flows back onto the grid, where it helps run his neighbors’ lights, televisions, and air conditioners. In return, the coop has reimbursed him for that power at the retail rate, the same rate he pays the utility for electricity. Depending on the time of year, it’s about 10 or 11 cents per kWh.

The concept is known as net metering, in which customers’ meters or bills run forward or backward depending on the electricity they use and produce. The past three years, Konkol has earned a credit on his bill during the summer months that paid for his wintertime usage, leaving just a $25 fixed monthly base charge.

That monthly base charge, which will increase to about $28 in January, doesn’t cover the cost of providing the service, which is closer to $40 on average, Pendergast said.

“If a member is not paying for any energy purchases, the other cooperative members must make up the revenue shortfall,” he wrote.

To address that problem, the cooperative’s board in May announced the utility will no longer pay solar owners the retail rate. Instead, it will buy customers’ surplus generation at what’s known as “avoided cost,” a rate based on what it would cost the utility to buy or produce an equivalent amount of electricity on its own.

That rate: between 2.75 and 3.75 cents per kWh.

With no grandfather clause in place, customers who bought systems based on the projected payback time could be waiting three to four times longer to break even.

Dispute over ‘value of solar’

Konkol’s original net-metering arrangement with the utility was “verbal and implied,” he said. No contract was signed. Even so, Konkol said the cooperative’s board of directors is acting unethically by not grandfathering in existing customers, as other Wisconsin utilities have done when changing their reimbursement policies.

Pendergast denied the existence of an implied guarantee and said because no contracts were in place the board decided to apply the new rules to all current and future installations.

Konkol also argues that the avoided-cost rate ignores the premium solar power deserves for generating power when it’s needed most. The avoided-cost rate is based on a 24-hour average, including overnight when electricity prices drop to low demand. The surplus power Konkol’s panels produce is delivered during sunny summer afternoons, when prices are high.

But the cooperative doesn’t have the data to back that up, according to Pendergast. He said the utility doesn’t meter customers’ energy production on an hourly basis, so it can’t say whether or not a customer is using all of their solar power in any given hour.

“Their energy production in excess of their purchases for a billing period may be on weekends when wholesale power rates are low, or in late morning hours,” Pendergast wrote. “On a hot, cloudy day, they aren’t producing a kWh.”

Solar policy expert John Farrell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, said solar power does tend to have additional value over a generic power source such as coal, and the avoided-cost rate doesn’t recognize that value. (In Minnesota, regulators recently started a process to develop a “value of solar” rate that considers solar’s premium.)

The conflict between this small cooperative and a dozen members is “a microcosm of a huge war being waged between utilities and customer-generators of power over the utility’s future financial livelihood,” Farrell said. Customers are finding less expensive ways to get energy, and utilities are responding by adding fees, raising rates, and hiking fixed charges.

“They just don’t know how to deal with it,” said a frustrated Konkol. “The way we produce electricity is changing, and the old model doesn’t work.”

Originally published September 26, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/26/wisconsin-passive-house-at-center-of-co-op-solar-net-metering-dispute/

In Minnesota, looking for lessons from Goodhue wind fight

(Photo by Nic McPhee via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Nic McPhee via Creative Commons)

The developers of an embattled wind project in southeastern Minnesota finally pulled the plug this week, telling the state on Tuesday they would no longer be pursuing the controversial project.

The 78-megawatt, $179 million project was initially proposed in 2009 by a subsidiary of T. Boone Pickens’ Mesa Power Group and, after a string of setbacks, was sold last year to New Era Wind.

A group of citizens fought the project from the beginning on every front. Early testimony focused primarily on health and financial fears, with residents raising concerns about spoiled views, property values, and so-called wind turbine syndrome.

Ultimately it was flaws in the developers’ wildlife impact studies and protection plans that did in the project. Minnesota regulators rejected the developers’ eagle protection plan in February 2012 after objections were raised by opponents and the state Department of Natural Resources.

As the messy, four-year dispute comes to a close, we spoke with two people close to the controversy as well as an expert on the wind industry for their perspective on what, if any, legacy or lessons the case leaves behind.

County attorney: Clarity needed on setbacks

Steve Betcher spent months helping to draft, then defend, Goodhue County’s wind turbine setback rules, which would have banned turbines from being installed within about a half mile of any neighboring home.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ultimately disregarded the county rules in favor of a roughly quarter-mile setback based on state noise standards. State law says the PUC can ignore county setback rules if it finds good cause to do so.

“They do not follow a set of standards that are uniform. They use a case-by-case analysis, which makes it very difficult for anyone in the public to know what rules are going to be applied,” Betcher said.

Betcher said the controversial case revealed a flawed and unpredictable process for permitting wind farms in the state — one that he hopes regulators will be motivated to fix in its wake.

“It just went on too long because there was no step-by-step process,” he said.

Betcher said the public doesn’t have enough opportunity to review or comment on large wind farms early on in the process. He also said the state’s noise-based setbacks are inadequate because they don’t account for low-frequency noise.

While there’s no conclusive evidence to support the claims, some researchers suspect low-frequency noise — deep vibrations that are inaudible to the human ear — could be the cause of health symptoms reported by some neighbors of wind farms.

Minnesota needs a more specific noise regulation for wind farms, Betcher said. “I’d like it to be relevant to the kind of noise we’re talking about from a wind generator: low-frequency noise.”

The utilities commission should come up with rules, he said, that consider infrasound and also provide more details on how sound is measured. For example, should levels be taken indoors or outdoors, at ground level or at tower height?

He admits the challenges, though.

“The low-frequency noise issue has only been evolving in the last five years or so, so some of the equipment to measure it hasn’t been available,” Betcher said, “and the regulatory bodies worldwide haven’t universally accepted that as a concern.”

Activist: More projects deserve scrutiny

Marie McNamara has spent much of the last four years fighting to stop the wind project.

“It took a long time for anyone to listen,” said McNamara, who co-founded Goodhue Wind Truth with her husband, Bruce.

McNamara said she thinks she and her fellow opponents helped put important issues in the public eye. Now that the Goodhue County project has been defeated, she hopes other wind projects in the state see similar opposition.

“Many more of the projects in Minnesota should be under more scrutiny,” McNamara said. “I don’t think you’re going to put that in your article. There are other [wind] projects in Minnesota that need more scrutiny.”

Which projects? “All you’ve got to do is start looking through the dockets like we do. Do the work,” she said.

On whether the efforts of Goodhue Wind Truth will have a lasting impact on wind development in the state, McNamara said she hopes so.

“I hope in 20 years there’s not inefficient, poorly sited, environmentally impacting projects that are running around under the heading of renewable and sustainable,” she said.

McNamara criticized the use of desktop studies, rather than field counts, to assess the risk to birds and bats, and she criticized the Minnesota Department of Commerce for not playing a more aggressive watchdog role.

“There weren’t requirements for accuracy. If there’s no accountability, what do you get? You get a big problem,” she said.

Wind advocate: An anomaly, not an omen

Joe Sullivan, regional policy manager for Wind on the Wires, says the Goodhue County controversy may cause developers to redouble their community outreach efforts, but it doesn’t represent a sea change in the way the industry does business.

“When the community is not happy, this is what can happen. That’s the takeaway,” Sullivan said. “But [wind developers] already knew that lesson.”

Wind on the Wires is a non-profit group that advocates for the wind industry, particularly on transmission issues. It’s also a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Sullivan couldn’t say whether the developers erred in their early outreach efforts, as opponents have alleged. The organization doesn’t typically comment on specific projects, nor was it directly involved in the process.

In general, though, the wind industry doesn’t view the Goodhue opposition as an omen of things to come, he said, and neither do they consider the case a sign of broader problems with the way projects are developed in the state.

“Goodhue is a very unique situation. It’s a very unique set of circumstances. That’s the way that many people in the industry look at it,” Sullivan said. “It’s an anomaly.”

Sullivan said Minnesota has a very clear regulatory process for wind projects, and that — despite what opponents claim — it hasn’t fundamentally changed in the wake of the Goodhue case.

“It is by no means just checking off the boxes. It is a thorough process, and there is a thorough review,” Sullivan said.

Another thing that hasn’t changed, according to Sullivan, is developers’ appetite to do projects in the state.

“The industry is not turning away,” said Sullivan, citing 400 megawatts worth of projects slated to be built in Minnesota over the next year. “That’s hundreds of millions of dollars of development that’s been made post-Goodhue.”

Originally published September 20, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/20/in-minnesota-looking-for-lessons-from-goodhue-wind-fight/

Research seeks best bang-for-buck on bus efficiency

One of Metro Transit's advanced "super hybrid" buses. (Photo courtesy Metro Transit)

One of Metro Transit’s advanced “super hybrid” buses. (Photo courtesy Metro Transit)

While hybrid drivetrains have led to significant fuel economy gains for cars, it’s not necessarily the same equation for a city bus.

A typical bus gets only between four and six miles per gallon. About half of that fuel is never used to put the bus in motion.

Instead, that energy is gobbled up powering other equipment, namely systems to cool the engine and keep a window-lined interior the size of a small studio apartment at a comfortable temperature.

A year ago, two of the world’s most advanced “super hybrid” transit buses hit the road in the Twin Cities, and have beaten conventional buses on fuel economy by about 35 percent. But little is understood about how and where those benefits accrue. How much savings, for example, is due to the advanced engines versus battery-powered cooling fans?

The answers to such questions could help transit agencies identify the most cost-effective upgrades for their fleets.

‘Where all the energy goes’

University of Minnesota engineering professor David Kittelson is hoping a two-year research project will yield new insights.

Kittelson is working with Metro Transit, which serves the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, to map the energy consumption of various conventional, hybrid and advanced hybrid buses in order to see precisely where savings are achieved.

“Our project really is to see where all the energy goes in propelling a bus,” Kittelson said.

One hypothesis: bus manufacturers could achieve significant fuel savings at a much lower cost than full hybrids by powering cooling fans, air conditioning, and other accessories with separate batteries.

Kittelson has concluded that running those systems off electric batteries has potential to improve fuel economy up to 15 percent at a cost of around $20,000 per bus. Advanced hybrids might achieve double the efficiency but at ten times the cost, he said.

The comparisons become more complicated when traffic, weather, and other factors are considered. On a route with heavy start-stop traffic, a hybrid might far outperform a conventional bus with electric accessories, for example, while the gap between the two buses might narrow on routes with higher speeds and less congestion.

Kittelson’s goal: to come up with a model that will let transit authorities compare all of these variables.

“At the end of the day, they’ll have much better tools for making purchase and deployment decisions,” Kittelson said.

Different types of hybrids

Metro Transit purchased its advanced hybrid buses last year with a $1.2 million federal grant that covered 80 percent of the cost. The buses were manufactured by New Flyer with components from BAE, Thermo King and Cummins.

The buses are considered series hybrids, in which the diesel engine charges an electric motor, which drives the transmission. Most hybrid buses are parallel hybrids, in which the diesel engine and electric motor are both attached to the drivetrain.

Kittelson’s project will compare the energy use of conventional buses, as well as both types of hybrids. Multiple buses have been equipped with instruments that will measure fuel use, along with variables such as speed, weather, and passenger load.

The research team is developing a website where they hope to be able to livestream data from the buses as they perform their normal routes. The tools they come up with will be publicly available for any transit organizations to use.

If every bus purchased can’t be an all-equipped, top-of-the-line fuel saver, which upgrades offer the most value?

“We’ll learn which ones are giving us benefits,” said Chuck Wurzinger, Metro Transit’s assistant director for bus maintenance.

They’re also looking forward to information about which types of buses are best suited for different types of routes.

The future is electric

Wurzinger predicts all-electric bus fleets in the future, but until then, transit agencies still have a variety of bus types to deploy and a variety of fuel-saving technologies to choose from when buying new buses.

One where the jury is still out at Metro Transit is electric air conditioning. Air conditioning is one of the big draws on bus engines that lowers fuel economy. Powering AC from a separate battery improves performance, but how much and at what cost?

“The potential gains are lower in our climate with an electrified air conditioning system than they might be in other transit properties,” Wurzinger said. “From our point of view in the Midwest, I don’t know that we’d ever recover the cost.”

Climate is one example why the most efficient bus is likely to vary depending on the specific use.

“We’re looking at coming up with modeling and design tools to help companies like Metro Transit optimally schedule their buses to the right routes,” Kittelson said, “and when it comes time to buying new buses, they’ll have the tools to be able to select appropriate accessories to give them the most cost-effective combination.”

The research project started in January and is expected to be completed by the end of 2014.

Originally published September 16, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/16/research-seeks-best-bang-for-buck-on-bus-efficiency/

Minnesota startup lowers lighting bill for indoor farming

Dave Roeser’s orbiting gardens save energy by keeping the tops of plants closer to a small number of lights. (Photo courtesy Garden Fresh Farms)

Dave Roeser’s orbiting gardens save energy by keeping the tops of plants closer to a small number of lights. (Photo courtesy Garden Fresh Farms)

Skyscraper farming has been a thing of futurists’ fascination in recent years.

As the world becomes more urban and crowded and a host of environmental challenges put more pressure on existing crop land, it’s intuitive that indoor farming might someday play a bigger role in feeding city populations.

On the ground, though, energy demands and real-estate realities have been consistent barriers.

A Minnesota start-up company is sprouting past these obstacles, though, with a compact, energy-efficient design it thinks could be a new model for urban farming.

Garden Fresh Farms is a finalist in the Minnesota Cup, an annual entrepreneurial competition that will announce its 2013 winner at an event Wednesday.

The circle of light

Dave Roeser and his wife, D.J., co-founded the company in 2010 in a suburban warehouse that was left vacant after he sold two small businesses.

Since last year, the couple, along with their biologist son, Bryan Roeser, have been growing basil, lettuce and other leafy veggies in an indoor aquaponics system that also annually produces tens of thousands of trout and tilapia for fish markets.

Aquaponics is an ancient farming method in which plants and fish are raised in a symbiotic environment. Fish waste contains ammonia, which is broken down by bacteria into nitrates, which is consumed as fertilizer by the plants, which cleans the water for the fish — all in one closed-loop system.

Garden Fresh Farms’ innovation: the orbiting garden, a system of hollow, steamroller-sized cylinders with an axle of light down the center that gives basil and other plants precisely the right amount of growing light while wasting precious few lumens.

“With lighting, every foot that you drop you lose 75 percent of the value of the light,” says Roeser. In other words, the farther the light source from the plants, the more intense it needs to be in order for enough photons to reach the plants.

“What we do is put the light within inches of the top canopy of the product that’s growing, no matter what stage of development it’s in,” says Roeser. “If it’s a two-inch seedling or a 16-inch, almost fully grown basil plant, the lightbulb is going to be just a couple inches from the top. What that means is we use a lot less light because we’re not losing it because of distance.”

Garden Fresh Farms has also developed a vertical, light-efficient system for growing lettuce, oregano, watercress and other greens. Its “lettuce factory” and the orbiting basil garden both allow for highly compact farming — in a one-acre building it can grow as many plants as a 100-acre outdoor farm, Roeser says.

That’s important because urban real estate is generally much more expensive than agricultural land. That’s one of the reasons Roeser sees skyscraper farming as less feasible, along with the added energy requirements for transporting equipment and materials up and down within a building.

“The skyscraper thing is kind of fun. It gets people thinking,” he says. “We saw that it didn’t make economic sense. It was way too much energy growing that way.”

Instead, this company’s model focuses on converting large, flat vacant buildings into urban farms. Garden Fresh Farms’ first location in Maplewood doesn’t compete for space with office or retail in denser, downtown areas, but the inner-ring St. Paul suburb is also close enough to customers to cut down on transportation costs.

‘Pennies per plant’

The bill for lighting its indoor farm is sizable, but it uses far less fuel for transportation, especially compared to what gets imported over winter. Its crops are hand harvested. There’s no running of tractors or other large farm equipment, and there’s no chemical fertilizer, many of which are made from petroleum products.

Roeser says the energy cost at its Maplewood farm is less than a nickel per plant. “If you look at that total transportation cost, pennies per plant is really cheap.”

Roeser sees potential to lower the farm’s energy footprint further by switching from metal halide lighting to LEDs. Currently available LEDs don’t spread light as well as other bulbs, meaning they’d need more fixtures, making them cost-prohibitive, he says. But they’re working with the University of Minnesota and an LED manufacturer on a research project to try to solve that problem.

Garden Fresh Farms’ plants actually get some of their light from the sun, but indirectly. The building’s rooftop features 44 solar panels made by Minnesota-based tenKsolar that produce an average of 12,500 kWh of electricity per year.

Garden Fresh Farms has been able to match the price of organic competitors from Mexico or California. So far it’s supplied CSAs, restaurants and dining halls with its greens. The company has sold its fish whole and direct to customers, who come with buckets on periodic fish market days.

Garden Fresh Farms is expanding with the first of what Roeser hopes will be many investor-owned farms using its equipment. The second location is being built in St. Paul in close proximity to food distributors. Investors hope they will be able to harvest one day and have their product in stores and restaurants the next day.

Roeser has ambition to continue that franchise-like growth, in which investors buy the equipment and name from Garden Fresh Farms, and perhaps also hire it to run the farm as well. He sees potential to be a national or even global brand for fresh greens.

“What we see is that we’re almost like what McDonalds was in 1955,” says Roeser.

The company is one of six finalists for the Minnesota Cup award, which comes with a $40,000 grand prize. It already won the energy and clean tech division.

Originally published September 11, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/11/minnesota-startup-lowers-lighting-bill-for-indoor-farming/

In unlikely alliance, Wisconsin Libertarians back solar plan

The "Liberty" mural inside the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison. (Photo by JonU235 via Creative Commons)

The Liberty mural inside the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison. (Photo by JonU235 via Creative Commons)

A group of conservative Tea Party activists in Atlanta turned heads this summer when they announced a partnership with the local Sierra Club chapter to help pressure Georgia’s largest electric utility to boost its investment in solar power.

Six weeks later, solar power picked up another unexpected supporter in Wisconsin, where on Aug. 20 the state’s Libertarian Party endorsed a clean energy group’s proposal to let customers lease solar panels and other small renewable generators.

“Most of us don’t trust the environmental movement because they’ve cried wolf forever and ever. There are all kinds of philosophical disagreements, but at the end of the day this was pretty much a no-brainer,” said Paul Ehlers, state party chair.

The proposal they endorsed would clarify state law to allow leasing and other types of third-party ownership for solar panels, wind turbines and other generators, in which neither the electric customer nor their local utility owns the system.

The Libertarian Party has no elected state legislators in Wisconsin, but it does have influence with a certain subset of the Republican Party, which currently controls the state’s government. The Libertarians’ stamp of approval could help change the long-polarized debate about distributed generation in the state.

“We have some credibility now. We can talk to Republican legislators in a way we couldn’t in the past,” said Michael Vickerman, program and policy director for RENEW Wisconsin, which is leading the Clean Energy Choice campaign.

RENEW Wisconsin is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Vickerman began contacting members of the Libertarian Party’s state executive committee in July after reading about the Tea Party developments in Georgia. (Wisconsin’s Tea Party was dismissed as potential clean energy ally because of its strong ties to the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity group.)

“What we’re proposing doesn’t involve a new mandate or an extension of existing mandates. It’s not in any way related to existing or future subsidies. It’s not an intrusion in the marketplace. It’s actually a liberation of the marketplace. So we felt this issue should fit in their wheelhouse,” Vickerman said.

He eventually heard back from a receptive ear in Ehlers, the state’s party chair. Ehlers teaches geography and geology at a technical college in Rhinelander. Unlike many in his party, he says, he believes humans are causing global warming.

“I’m not convinced it’s the end of the world, like some people are, but I think it’s pretty clear that we are having an impact on the atmosphere,” Ehlers said.

Ehlers took the proposal to the party’s executive committee.

“I said let’s just look at this on the merits. This is not about global warming. It’s really the first step in deregulation of the utilities. More important, it reaffirms private property rights. We should all be in favor of that,” Ehlers said. “It’s really no different than a satellite dish company providing you with a satellite dish so that I can watch TV channels that I can’t get through my local marketplace.”

The existence of state and federal subsidies for renewable energy was a sticking point in the committee’s debate.

“We are, of course, not in favor of that, but they’re subsidizing the coal industry, they’re subsidizing the natural gas industry, they’re subsidizing fracking. We want all subsidies to end,” Ehlers said.

Eventually, the committee voted 6-1 to approve a carefully worded endorsement that supports a property owner’s right to buy and generate on-site power, regardless of whether a regulated public utility is involved in the process:

“On the matter of public utilities and their definitions, the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin recognizes that existing definitions and regulations can swiftly become obsolete as new technologies and service innovations come into existence. From our understanding, the Clean Energy Choice initiative seeks to clarify the legal status of contracts where a property owner grants an easement to a private company to build a small power station on their property. The LPWI is committed to the idea of free contract: individuals can do as they wish with their property provided they do not trespass on others. The LPWI encourages contracts among property owners, small on-site power providers and large off-site power providers, geared to their individual best interest as they define it without interference or distortion from government entities.”

The statement also disapproves of tax credits for renewables:

“While it is unfortunate that federal tax credits are a major impetus to the marketability of third party financing of renewable energy systems on a customer’s premises, this initiative is about choice.  Any initiative that increases choice by definition increases liberty.”

The Clean Energy Choice campaign’s growing list of sponsors includes environmental groups, energy contractors, and a handful of cities and counties. It has yet to secure a bill sponsor. Vickerman said they will continue seeking more endorsements, particularly from cities, counties, school districts, and large companies.

“We need to go out and show legislators that support for this policy is broad and that it doesn’t align itself easily with the partisan divide that prevails in this state,” Vickerman said. “At some point we want to be able to demonstrate to legislative leadership that they ignore this popular desire at their peril, and that the time is here to introduce legislation to expressly authorize third-party contracts for clean energy.”

Vickerman said he anticipates a legislative hearing on the issue later this year and hopes to see a bill introduced before the end of the session in March 2014.

While libertarianism and conservatism are different ideologies, Ehlers said the third-party proposal in Wisconsin would be a win for deregulation, the free marketplace and property rights — all things conservatives traditionally support.

“I would say when you look at the proposal and you don’t have a knee jerk reaction to it,” Ehlers said, “I think the right will embrace it because it really is none of the government’s business where I get my energy from.”

Originally published September 06, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/06/in-unlikely-alliance-wisconsin-libertarians-back-solar-plan/