Mary Miller and her husband had solar panels installed on the roof of their Dubuque home about two years ago.
The decision largely was derided by friends and neighbors as an unwise investment, but the potential monetary savings wasn’t the couple’s primary motivation.
They said they had seven reasons to make the investment — their six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
“A lot of people thought we were crazy,” Miller said. “We wanted to help with our planet for our future generations.”
The Millers are an example of the much larger movement in the tri-state area toward increased renewable energy use. Renewable energy sources have come to power more and more of the nation.
In 2009, coal produced 44 percent of the energy in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Association. Natural gas produced 23 percent. By 2018, coal’s share of energy production dropped to 27 percent. By 2050, coal is anticipated to produce only 17% of energy in the U.S.
Renewable energy sources are experiencing the opposite trend.
In 1951, renewable energy produced about 5 percent of the country’s electricity, almost solely from hydropower, according to the USEIA. In 2018, 18 percent of electricity generation came from renewable energy sources. By 2050, the USEIA projects renewable energy will make up 31% of total energy production.
As the rise of renewable energy is anticipated to continue, local experts believe the tri-state area is likely to follow suit.
However, many hurdles still remain for renewable energy expansion, and some argue that the detriments of renewable energy must not be ignored.
Wind turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds each year, hydropower dams are known to impact the environment of aquatic life, and the effectiveness of solar panels can be impacted by something as simple as a tree in the yard.
Some also argue that the investment in renewable energy might undercut efforts equally beneficial to the environment, such as improving energy efficiency in homes.
“Every single renewable you can point to has downsides,” said Adam Hoffman, associate professor of environmental chemistry at University of Dubuque. “A lot of people who are proponents only focus on the positives.”
Potential local growth
In Iowa, nearly 4,700 wind turbines produced about 34% of the state’s energy in 2018, according to the USEIA. By comparison, turbines accounted for about 4% of energy in Illinois and 3% in Wisconsin.
Iowa’s wind-power production can be attributed in part to its landscape.
“Unobstructed winds blow across Iowa’s open prairie, giving the state significant wind energy resources,” states USEIA.
Hoffman said the future of renewable energy lies in states and municipalities using what resources are unique to them.
He pointed to a town in Sweden called Växjö, a city of 66,000 that generates 90% of residential heat and 25% of its electricity from its power plant burning wood scraps from the local, large lumber industry.
Hoffman contends that the tri-state area also has unique resources that it could utilize to get closer to becoming fossil-fuel free.
“We’re going to have to look for other means of producing electricity,” he said. “Each region utilizes their own resources, which is something we definitely have.”
Hoffman pointed to Iowa’s agricultural industry. Agricultural biomass ranging from corn stover to animal waste potentially could be used as a means of providing energy.
He also pointed to the Mississippi River as a possible source of hydroelectric power. The state of Iowa has three hydroelectric plants.
Opening such a facility at Lock and Dam No. 11 in Dubuque has been explored twice in recent years. Preliminary permits to investigate constructing a plant at the lock were issued to a South Dakota company in 2013 and a company based in Barcelona, Spain, in 2015.
Allen Marshall, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, confirmed that neither company pursued the idea to the development phase.
He said the massive investment required for such a project means companies must be sure of its economic viability before serious consideration of building a facility.
“There are hurdles that come with it,” Marshall said. “There needs to be economic value.”
Dubuque Sustainability Coordinator Gina Bell said city officials are not “actively exploring” developing hydropower at Lock and Dam 11, but they are open to working with an outside party to explore options — just as they did with the previous companies.
While hydropower might not be a local reality, the rise of solar energy is.
Hoffman said solar also is likely to see a major jump in total energy production.
From 2012 to 2018, employment in the solar industry doubled from about 120,000 to 242,000, according to Solar Energy Industries Association.
Barry Shear, president of Eagle Point Solar in Dubuque, said his company has seen a steady increase in business since its founding in 2010.
He said that success largely is due to the increasing economic viability of solar, leading to an increase in residential solar installations.
In 2010, the cost of solar was at about $7 per watt, meaning a one-kilowatt solar array cost $70,000 to purchase and install, Shear said. In 2019, the projected benchmark cost per watt for solar energy is estimated to be $2.70 per watt for residential systems and $1.83 per watt for commercial systems, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“This is a whole new energy paradigm,” Shear said. “More and more people are producing their own energy instead of being tied to a utility, which is unprecedented.”
The recent development of batteries that can store solar energy has made residential solar more viable. Before, many solar installations would have wasted energy that is produced during the day, when homes traditionally use the least power. Batteries allow for all energy produced by solar arrays to be spent.
“It’s made it much more viable,” Shear said. “We’re only expecting solar to become more efficient over time.”
A new path for traditional utilities
Utility companies also have invested more in solar.
Ben Lipari, director of resource development for Alliant Energy, said the utility company intends to expand its already growing presence in solar.
The $10 million West Dubuque Solar Garden was completed in 2017. Located in Dubuque Industrial Center West, north of Humke Road, there are more than 15,000 solar panels on the 21-acre site. It is the largest solar project in Iowa, producing 5 megawatts of energy to power an average of 727 homes annually.
Another Alliant array in downtown Dubuque produces 1.2 megawatts.
While these projects have been notable for Alliant Energy’s foray into solar, Lipari said, company officials intend to develop much larger projects.
“What we’ve added has been smaller in nature in order to understand the performance characteristics of solar,” Lipari said. “It will help inform some of our more significant plans.”
He would not provide specific details about future projects aside from saying Alliant aims to erect two major solar arrays, each of which will produce 50 to 100 megawatts.
The company also has said it will invest in 1,000 megawatts of wind energy in Iowa over the next two years. That would bring Alliant’s portfolio to 40% renewable energy.
To cover that investment, the company has requested increasing the base rate for residential electricity by 24.45%. According to Iowa Utilities Board, that would increase the monthly bill of the average customer from $82 to $102.
Spokesman Justin Foss said Alliant intends to continue introducing renewable energy sources to its power grid as a means of preventing dramatic rises in utility charges in the face of the eventual scarcity of fossil fuels.
Many utility companies in the Midwest are making the move to invest in significant renewable energy projects.
In the Montfort area in southwest Wisconsin, energy company Invenergy is looking to develop a 300-megawatt solar farm capable of powering about 77,100 homes per year. The Badger Hollow installation would include 1.2 million solar panels on about 2,500 acres of farmland.
Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act has resulted in a sharp rise in proposed renewable energy projects in Jo Daviess County.
Two of the 11 recently proposed projects received renewable energy credits from the state as part of its lottery system for the program. One array will be a 1,350-kilowatt facility near Apple Canyon Lake. The other — a 2-megawatt array — will be located two miles east of Stockton.
While these projects are notable, Shear argued that the future of solar production lies in residential installations.
“It’s going to reach a point where that is the common practice,” Shear said. “We’re seeing that right now. It will make too much economic sense to do.”
Bell said Dubuque’s plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 has resulted in significant steps by the city to invest in renewable energy, including installing solar panels on its seven fire stations, the Jule building and the Historic Federal Building.
City Council members also recently approved hiring a consultant to assist in updating the city’s Climate Action Plan.
While advocates see a bright future for renewable energy in the area, some opponents feel the drawbacks cannot be ignored.
Downside of going renewable
Richard Jinkins has lived on a 400-acre farm three miles east of Livingston, Wis., for nearly his entire life. The property has been in his family since 1848.
Like his grandfather and great-grandfather before him, Jinkins grows corn and soybeans on the land, but recently he has opposed Invenergy’s Badger Hollow project.
Once completed, the land surrounding him will be filled with solar panels, which Jinkins feels would rob the area of valuable fertile soil.
“It’s going to be an ocean of solar panels,” Jinkins said. “I know there are people who don’t mind that, but most of the rural people out here are in this area because that’s not their thing.”
Jinkins also is one of many rural property owners fighting the creation of a high-voltage transmission line through southwest Wisconsin.
The Cardinal-Hickory Creek project, a joint venture among American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative, is a 102- to 120-mile-long line running from Dane County, Wis., to Dubuque County.
Companies advocating for the project state that it would reduce energy grid congestion and allow wind energy produced from Iowa to be transported to other states.
Save Our Unique Lands of Wisconsin is an organization based out of La Farge that opposes Cardinal-Hickory Creek and similar energy infrastructure projects.
Rob Danielson, of the organization, said the development of such extensive infrastructure will do more harm than good.
“You are spending an immense amount of money and land for this infrastructure that isn’t going to contribute that much to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “There are much better ways to go about this.”
Danielson argued that instead of investing in infrastructure and large renewable energy projects, money instead should be put toward improving energy efficiency for residential homes and existing energy producers.
A 2018 report from International Energy Agency estimated that increased investment in energy-efficiency programs could contribute significantly to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Danielson said he believes that renewable energy should be developed, but that its development should be focused on a local, residential level.
However, Foss said even residential solar arrays utilize the electric grid, so an increased proliferation of residential solar arrays will require utilities to update infrastructure to handle the influx.
“If one house puts solar on, we have that extra capacity,” Foss said. “However, there are communities that have solar all over. That has led to massive investments in the energy grid over there.”
That cost to update the infrastructure has resulted in some utilities calling for legislatures to enact a tax on residential solar owners who don’t pay for the energy they produce.
House File 699, introduced at the last legislative session in Iowa, aimed to impose a fee on residential solar array owners as a means of helping pay for grid infrastructure improvements. The bill passed in the Senate but then stalled.
Foss noted that Alliant remained neutral on the bill.
However, Shear argued that people producing their own energy shouldn’t be charged for it.
“You can’t discriminate against solar customers,” Shear said. “Imagine if you had to pay an entrance fee to Hy-Vee because you grew your own vegetables.”
Josh Mandelbaum, staff attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said legislation aiming to further regulate renewable energy and residential solar is likely as those continue to grow.
“We’re now seeing it pretty regularly in states,” he said. “We anticipate similar legislation in the future.”
Along with the determining renewable energy’s relationship with electric grids, Hoffman said nearly all forms of renewable energy still have drawbacks.
The momentum continues
Despite its drawbacks and legislative battles, renewable energy systems cover more of the country’s needs each year.
However, Hoffman said how fast renewables take hold likely will hinge on the local populace’s willingness to embrace them.
“It’s always easier to do exactly what you have done,” he said. “If you want to see that change, you have to change mindsets. You have to change habits.”