Next fall students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville will have a new opportunity for hands-on learning — five acres of solar panels.
The panels will supply the campus with about 17% of its annual electricity, saving the university $217,000 a year and allowing classes to continue, even if there’s a power failure. The installation will be the largest state-owned solar array and will make the university the sixth-highest on-site producer of renewable energy among institutions of higher education in the nation.
The solar project has been in the works for years, spearheaded by junior Ben Behlke, a sustainable and renewable energy systems major. He’s excited to bring the project to life, a first for any UW campus.
“It wasn’t until this week that it hit us how different this project is,” he said in an interview last week. “No one has ever really tried this.”
The solar array got its final approvals this month, and construction on the large installment will begin as soon as the weather permits, professor Amy Seeboth-Wilson said.
The construction should be finished by the time students return to the campus this fall and will allow for collaboration across several majors, including not only those studying sustainable energy but also computer science and agriculture majors. Eventually, the solar array will have a flock of sheep underneath to keep the grass and other plants in check, allowing the students to monitor and learn from a flock.
“It’s multi-layer,” Seeboth-Wilson said.
The two hope the project begins to create conversations about renewable energy and the good it can do.
“This is painted as a polarizing issue, but really if you look at it, it shouldn’t be,” Behlke said. “We’re saving money, and working with utility companies. And for our region it makes sense.”
The natural angle of the sun makes Wisconsin an ideal place to put panels on roofs and on open land, like at the campus, he said. The cooler temperatures will help the panels run more efficiently, he said, even though they’ll likely have to brush snow off sometimes.
“It just naturally makes sense to put solar around,” he said.
Seeboth-Wilson hopes the project shows how solar energy fits into the conversation about diversifying energy options. While solar may not be perfect, it can help to fill gaps when needed.
“Renewable energy is part of a diverse portfolio,” she said. “It gives us more options in case of disasters and happens to save money.”
The solar array comes at a time when some state leaders are pushing for more sustainable energy throughout Wisconsin.
Late last year, the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change recommended a number of measures to pivot the state to more sustainable practices, including sustainable energy, reducing carbon emissions and the creation of an Office of Environmental Justice.
The project to install the solar panels comes at a time when Gov. Tony Evers is encouraging Wisconsinites to think more about sustainable energy, pledging in his 2021 budget address that the state will be 100% carbon-free by 2050. Evers is also pushing for $1 million to train Wisconsinites for careers in clean energy, in addition to other climate change-related asks.
“Folks, we cannot afford to continue ignoring science and denying the reality of climate change in Wisconsin,” he said during his budget address Tuesday night. “I know we can deliver on the promise we make to our kids to leave them a better life and world than the one we inherited.”
Behlke is hoping the project makes people take notice of how innovative the state can be.
“I hope the Board of Regents and elected officials take note,” he said. “I hope they push more projects like this to continue to showcase all the good Wisconsin can do.”
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.