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Solon Springs plans solar-powered future

Mark Stensvold stands with one of the solar panels he is donating to the Solon Springs School District outside of his house in Bennett on Monday, Oct. 15. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Solon Springs School District is turning to the sun for both energy and education.

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) has awarded the district a $124,500 grant, half of the cost of installing a 100 kW rooftop solar array. The array is expected to generate 44 percent of the school's electricity, saving the district about $12,600 annually.

Solon Springs was one of 31 applicants to be awarded nearly $5 million in energy innovation grants by the PSC Sept. 27. Only 30 percent of applicants statewide received grants, said Solon Springs Superintendent Frank Helquist. That percentage jumped to 60 percent for applicants in northwest Wisconsin.

In addition to Solon Springs, grants were approved for the city of Ashland, Bayfield County and the Drummond and Washburn school districts.

The Solon Springs solar array will be built next summer with the district providing an upfront cost of $12,500. A public-private partnership formed through Solar Legacy Co-op would keep the district's cost low.

The most the district would have to pay for the nearly $250,000 project would be $50,000, according to Tony Hartmann, director of business development for Solar Legacy Co-op.

The co-op offers revolving loans for community solar projects. It will pair the district with private Wisconsin investors who can take advantage of incentive tax credits for renewable energy, which Helquist said are currently at 30 percent.

"We have helped facilitate a lot of solar by taking non-profits and allowing them to participate in federal incentives," Hartmann said.

After six years, the private partner can sell or gift its share of the array to the school, at which point the district would then own it. The system will not have a battery, so any excess power produced when school is out of session would be bought back by Dahlberg Light and Power Company.

The Solon Springs School District has already reduced its energy use by installing LED lighting and more efficient heating and cooling systems, Helquist said. The move to solar would save money, raise local awareness of renewable energy and provide educational opportunities for students.

"It has good value to it," Helquist said.

Science teacher Joanne Zosel includes an introduction to alternative energy solutions in all her courses.

"Wouldn't it be a great extension to have students able to witness solar panels in action?" Zosel asked in her letter to the PSC supporting the project.

Software included with the solar array would track its energy production, historical performance and energy equivalents through a mobile-friendly display that students could tap into and share.

Mark Stensvold of Bennett, a member of the Solon Springs Educational Foundation, lofted the solar panel plan. He and his wife, Louise Foss, became Dahlberg Light & Power Company's second solar-equipped customers in 2013 and their home was included in this month's Midwest Renewable Energy Association Solar Tour.

Stensvold lofted the idea to Helquist after learning about Solar Legacy Co-op at an energy fair..

"Once I understood what Solar Legacy Co-op was doing, it just made sense," he said.

He's even planning to gift a few of his leftover solar panels to the school for hands-on learning once the project is completed.

Renewable energy in the area is growing. Dahlberg, which serves more than 11,000 retail customers in Douglas, Bayfield and Washburn counties, now has 20 customers who use solar panels. There have been five new solar customers this year alone, according to the utility.

The Solon Springs School array would be Dahlberg's largest solar customer.

Solar Legacy Co-op has supported 14 completed projects since 2013, according to legacysolarcoop.org. They include churches, the cities of Monona and Fitchburg, a library in Merrill and a convent in Milwaukee.

Anyone can become a member of the co-op and buy bonds that earn interest annually. The current interest rate is 4-6 percent, according to Hartmann. That money is lent to solar projects in Wisconsin through a revolving loan fund.

"The fun part is people get to participate," Hartmann said, whether solar is a good fit for their residence or not. "Everybody can do something proactive and positive."

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