Solar power increases for businesses and utilities in Wisconsin led to three times more solar power installations for 2015 than any other before, according to numbers from Renew Wisconsin.

Seven-and-a-half megawatts of solar power, enough energy to power 1,000 average sized homes, were installed in 2015, Tyler Huebner, Renew Wisconsin executive director, said. In previous years, he said, only two to three megawatts were installed, and most increases were residential rather than industrial.

Huebner said one of the driving forces behind the increase comes from solar power costs dropping by 60 percent in the last six years. Most Wisconsinites use solar panels to offset the cost of other non-renewable energies, he added.  

“You can do solar and actually save money,” Huebner said. “And that’s really what’s turning the tide, especially for the businesses.”

In 2015, significant solar additions were made for both businesses and utilities, rather than just residential buildings, Huebner said.

Huebner said he expects this trend to increase in 2016, as Dairyland Power is expected to build 10 to 20 megawatts of solar power and Minnesota-based Xcel Energy is expected to build up to three megawatts.

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Robert Hamers, University of Wisconsin chemistry professor, said one of the major limitations of solar power is storing the energy solar panels produce, which is a technological challenge. He said advances need to be made so large amounts of energy can be stored — ideally in grid-scale energy storage — for solar and other renewable energies to make up a significant portion of our power usage.

“If we really want to make effective use of the renewables, then we have to find ways of being able to store energy,” Hamers said.

Huebner said solar power currently makes up less than 1 percent of Wisconsin energy. To increase solar power usage to just 1 percent, Wisconsin residents would have to use 20 times more solar power, he said.

If storage advancements were made, Hamers said, energy produced from the sun during the day could be stored for use on cloudy days or at night. He said this strategy would also be effective for wind energy since it is more windy at night.

Advancements in energy storage could also cut down current energy use from non-renewable sources, Hamers said. A lot of energy goes to waste because it cannot be stored for extended periods of time, he said.

Hamers said Wisconsin needs to focus on using all forms of renewable energy, not just solar.

The primary way to decrease energy consumption is to focus on conserving energy, Hamers said. There are already options available for decreasing energy consumption — such as lights that turn off automatically, LED lights and electric cars — but Wisconsinites need to use more of them.

Energy storage advancements also have the potential to increase the use of electric cars, Hamers said. This would make great strides in decreasing the use of gas powered cars, one of the biggest contributors to pollution, he said.

One of the biggest challenges in moving to renewable energy options, Hamers said, is that they have to be cost competitive. He said the falling cost of oil is hurting the implementation of renewables because people will not want to use electric cars if gasoline cars are less expensive.

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Huebner said as oil and coal sources continue to deplete, the cost of non-renewable energy will rise, and the cost of energy conscious power options will fall. He said he expects solar power to be used more in the future, and some experts even estimate solar power could make up half of the U.S.’s power by 2050.

“The concepts are out there that there’s really no limitation to how much solar we can use … in the United States and probably throughout the world,” Huebner said. “It’s going to continue to grow at increasing rates.”