Cornfields, cows…and solar? The potential for renewable energy in the heartland

The Midwest is known for cornfields, cows and good neighbors. But what about solar power?

These former industrial havens haven’t yet developed as much solar power as coastal solar pros like California, but they’ve got the solar potential, advocacy groups and political sway to be players on the solar field.

There’s a misconception that the Midwest doesn’t get enough sun for solar to make sense. According to NREL’s latest National Solar Radiation Database update, the Midwest has PSM Direct Normal Irradiance (radiant energy per unit area) between 3.5 and 5.5 kWh/m² each day. Though California has an average of 6 kWh/m² a day, New York has also emerged as a top state for solar with an average of 4.0 kWh/m² a day. So the Midwest certainly gets enough rays to be a viable solar player.

NREL’s latest irradiance map.

SEIA sees the potential. It started the Midwest State Committee in January, after “wading into the region” in the last few years, said Sean Gallagher, SEIA’s vice president of state affairs.

“There were several developments last year that I think pushed us sort of over the edge to wanting to have a little bit more involvement,” Gallagher said.

One of those developments was the Future Energy Jobs bill that passed in Illinois last December. The bill updated the Illinois Renewable Portfolio Standard to allot more funds for in-state solar development, rather than for purchasing credits from out-of-state projects. Other developments included the Michigan RPS expansion from 10% to 15% by 2021, and the veto of the Ohio bill that would’ve extended the RPS freeze.

Gallagher said SEIA initially thought the Clean Power Plan would be the tool to catapult the Midwest into the renewable revolution.

“Now we’re seeing that even without the Clean Power Plan as the driver, there appears to be some market opportunities and we’re going to try to help our companies go after them,” he said.

Regional committees are usually SEIA’s first foray into a new section of the country. Its first was in the Southeast a few years ago, and its second is the Midwest committee.

If solar policies develop in specific states, SEIA could form state committees to advance pro-solar legislation. SEIA has already formed state committees in California, Massachusetts and New York.

Sign of the times?

One Midwest state has taken a turn for the worse in solar policy. Indiana recently passed legislation that essentially eliminates net metering in the state.

“The move in Indiana is unfortunate, and it’s unfortunately consistent with the kinds of things that utilities across the country have been proposing over the last couple of years,” Gallagher said.

He doesn’t, however, see the move as foreshadowing of the future of solar in the Midwest.

“We’ve seen this kind of thing around the country, so it’s not endemic to the Midwest,” Gallagher said.

A Heartland Solar installation in Indiana.

One Indiana solar contractor, Heartland Solutions, still feels optimistic about the Midwest’s solar future. The company started in cell tower construction 10 years ago and added solar services two years back. Its president Mark Fisher said his decision to integrate solar into his company came from looking forward.

He predicted that in five years, solar would become the place to be.

“The renewable energy side of things is really heating up, and we see it coming to the Midwest,” Fisher said. “It may not be here now, but I think it’s the way things are going.”

Though the Indiana ruling was a setback for residential installers, Fisher doesn’t think Heartland Solutions will be affected because it only operates in the utility-scale solar market. Plus, it still does much of its business outside state lines.

“We’re willing, right now, to travel to where the jobs are, hoping that as the Midwest heats up, we’ll develop enough contacts that we’ll be doing a lot of work right here at home,” he said.

Fisher said he pays attention to solar policy in Indiana but has not felt the need to get involved quite yet. Despite the current administration’s lack of solar support, Fisher is hopeful for the future of solar energy.

“We see it as being very bright, regardless of what current administration rulings would be and what their attitude would be,” Fisher said.

Looking ahead

A proactive move forward in Midwestern states, according to Gallagher, is to encourage public utilities commissions to institute “look-ahead” processes, in which they analyze what would happen if solar installations rose in the states, then make intelligent decisions about rate design based on facts.

Gallagher said the analysis should be more than just a cost-of-service study like what’s been done in Arizona and Nevada. He said it should consider all aspects of distributed solar, not just the cost to the utility.

One state has already pursued a look-ahead process, thanks to a dedicated advocacy group. In Iowa, the Environmental Law Policy Center has taken the lead on regulatory issues in front of the state’s utilities board. When the board started a “notice of inquiry” docket in 2014 in response to utilities saying net metering must be changed, the ELPC formed a coalition to advocate for pro-solar policy.

Josh Mandelbaum, staff attorney at the ELPC’s Iowa office, said the coalition included groups like SEIA, Vote Solar, iSETA, the Sierra Club and others.

The coalition advocated for the board to “take a data-driven look at distributed generation in Iowa and think first and foremost about steps that can be taken to continue to grow the [solar] industry in Iowa.”

The coalition argued that removing net metering policy would stifle Iowa’s potential emerging solar market.

“You need to keep the policy framework in place to grow the market first and foremost, and have a big enough, strong enough market that you can take a real data-driven look at the policy,” Mandelbaum said.

As a result of the solar coalition’s advocacy, the board created new net metering pilot projects that removed some of the previous barriers, such as limiting net metering to 500-kW systems and smaller. Under the new pilot program, systems up to 1-MW can net meter.

Another innovative strategy the ELPC employs is “legislative solar tours,” in which the ELPC takes legislators to see solar installations in their districts.

“Getting legislators to really understand the technology and the opportunities has been a big part of the success that we’ve had with policy makers,” Mandelbaum said.

The ELPC doesn’t stop at Iowa—it advocates for the solar industry across the Midwest.

“If you don’t have people advocating and getting a strong policy framework in place, it makes it harder for the industry to grow and expand and provide the benefits that it does all across the country,” Mandelbaum said. “You would then have pockets. If [solar] was only where it was easy, that’s where you would see solar development.”

Installers taking on legislators

As Midwest solar grows, Gallagher says it’s important for the industry to find ways to create a sustainable system for all—including utilities, installers and customers.

Gallagher said installers’ voices are the most important as solar grows in the Midwest. He said installers must be active in local politics since the electricity system in the United States is very heavily regulated and driven by policy.

“Utilities ask for things at state commissions, and when they don’t like them, they go to the legislature,” Gallagher said. “So it’s important for installers to get involved and stay involved.”

In addition to speaking up during lobby days, in calls and meetings with state legislators, solar installers should join their local SEIA affiliates. They should also join SEIA nationally, so they’re “part of the team that helps us understand exactly what installers need so we can go out and fight for them,” Gallagher said.

The Midwest has the potential to cultivate a new sector of clean energy, but it will take state-level advocacy and installer voices to make it happen.

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