Renewable energy is booming throughout the U.S., and evidence of that momentum is abundant in the tri-state area.
A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that renewable energy sources such as solar and wind will be the fastest-growing source of U.S. electricity generation over the next two years.
The organization’s Short Term Energy Outlook predicted that electricity generation from solar units will grow by 10 percent in 2019 and an additional 17 percent in 2020. Wind generation will grow by 12 percent and 14 percent in the next two years.
Such figures come as little surprise to local leaders in the renewable energy industry.
Barry Shear, president of Eagle Point Solar in Dubuque, believes customers have grown more comfortable with solar energy.
“It is becoming mainstream,” he said. “It is not new technology anymore. It’s been around for a while, and people are beginning to realize it will be around forever.”
Shear said the company’s workforce grew from 32 at the end of 2017 to 60 by the end of 2018, an increase of 88 percent. Shear projects that it could grow to about 80 by the end of February.
Eagle Point employees conducted 241 projects in 2018, 77 percent higher than the previous year.
Meanwhile, state data show that 261 solar energy systems installed in Dubuque County since 2012 have received tax credits. That puts Dubuque County among the top five counties in the state.
The data show 79 such projects over that time period in Clayton County and 66 in Jones County; 60 such projects in Delaware County; and 24 projects in Jackson County.
Winds of change
The anticipated growth in renewable energy over the next two years would complete a decade marked by transition.
In 2010, coal accounted for 45 percent of U.S. electricity generation; today, that figure is about 28 percent.
Nonhydro renewables — such as solar and wind — generated just 4 percent of U.S. electricity in 2010. They account for 10 percent of electricity generation today, and that figure is expected to grow to 13 percent by 2020.
In Lafayette County in Wisconsin, evidence of such growth is abundant.
In 2017, EDP Renewables constructed a 49-turbine, 98-megawatt wind farm west of Darlington. The company since has constructed a pair of meteorological “test towers” also in the county to assess the possibility of future growth.
County Economic Development Director Abby Haas said she is proud to see the county at the forefront of energy innovation.
“Lafayette is a small county, and we tend to be behind the curve on some things,” she said. “Having these turbines and towers puts us ahead of the curve and puts us on the map a little bit more.”
More wind development could be on the way in southwest Wisconsin.
In November, a Minnesota energy developer announced it was studying the feasibility of constructing a wind farm in Grant County.
A series of recent projects undertaken by Alliant Energy in Dubuque highlights the changes occurring in the energy industry.
In 2017, the utility installed more than 15,000 solar panels on a 21-acre site near Humke Road and placed additional panels on six acres along U.S. 61/151 in the city.
Alliant spokesman Justin Foss said such projects have grown more economically feasible over time.
“Part of it is just that the cost for renewable energy is very competitive now, and it continues to come down,” he said.
Foss noted that the cost of solar panels is declining. Meanwhile, their productivity is rising, meaning that fewer units have to be installed for the same amount of electric production.
Labor costs for renewable energy also are on the decline, according to Foss. As companies become more familiar with solar and wind projects, they are needing fewer employees and hours to install such projects.
Meanwhile, crews are tearing down Alliant’s Dubuque Generating Station, located on East Seventh Street near the Mississippi River. It was built in the 1880s and served as a coal-fired facility for the vast majority of its lifespan before being transitioned to a natural gas facility in 2011. In its final years, the plant was used as a “peaker,” only generating energy in times of peak usage.
It stopped generating energy in May 2017.
Shear acknowledged that the growth of solar has not come without hurdles.
President Donald Trump in 2018 approved four years of tariffs on imported solar panels, a decision that continues to impact renewable energy companies.
“It is unfortunate because it makes costs go up,” said Shear. “But we have been increasing our business in spite of that.”
Tariffs aren’t the only thing affecting renewable growth.
In an odd twist, Foss noted that the sheer speed of innovation is giving pause to some companies or utilities. In some cases, the rapid evolution of solar and wind technology means that one’s next investment could become obsolete in a year or two.
“Every utility these days is stopping and saying, ‘Do we invest today, or do we let (the technology) get just a little better and get a little better cost and performance by waiting for a couple years?’” Foss explained.