Wisconsin officials ramp up efforts to add solar power to government buildings

March 21, 2013

Officials gathered into a heated tent with a plywood floor Wednesday to symbolically break ground on what is believed to be the largest solar energy system project by a municipality in the state.

The title likely won't last for long, unlike the cold that greeted the first day of spring and forced officials to dig into a pile of sand instead of the frozen snow-covered ground.

Government agencies around the state are increasingly adding solar to existing buildings and incorporating the technology into new facilities. That means the 58,000-square-foot snow removal equipment building that is being built on the southwest side of the Dane County Regional Airport may soon be bumped from its chair as the biggest solar project by a government agency in Wisconsin.

"We're going through a process of assessing all of our buildings for the feasibility of adding solar," said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. "It's the right thing to do from an environmental perspective and long term from the taxpayer perspective."

The majority of the $13.7 million project is being paid for with state and federal grants plus airport funds. About $322,000 was spent on the solar array system that will join a geothermal heating and cooling system, dozens of skylights and a plumbing system that is water efficient.

The size and design of the structure, which includes 30-foot wide and 16-foot high doors, will also improve operations. There will be more room for $740,000 snowblowers and $425,000 plow trucks with 22-foot wide blades that are used to clear runways, taxiways and other paved open space.

"It's tight. You have to move multiple pieces out," Greg Kerkenbush, airfield maintenance supervisor, said of the existing storage garage. "This (new) building is now properly sized for our equipment."

Other equipment includes tow-behind powered brooms, de-icer trucks and sander trucks. The building, which is modeled after a similar facility that opened in 2011 at Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, also includes a 10-ton overhead crane, vehicle lifts and a built-in lubricant storage and distribution system.

Andy Platz, president of Madison-based Mead & Hunt, said his design firm works on facilities across the country and designed the snow storage facility for Dane County. More airports are looking at solar power, he said.

"Two years ago the FAA was not overly concerned or focused on sustainability," Platz said. "In the past year and half, two years, they've had a big focus on sustainability which has been able to drive the funding for this."

But governments are looking at more than airport facilities. Solar energy power systems are being considered for a proposed regional county medical examiner's complex and a highway garage. The city of Neenah recently added solar power to a public works garage while the city of Milwaukee has about a dozen solar-powered buildings, including a 30-kilowatt system on the roof of the Milwaukee Public Library, said Amy Heart, Milwaukee's solar program manager.

"It's a great application because those roofs are wide open," Heart said. "Part of our approach was we wanted to walk the talk."

In Madison, all 12 of the city's fire stations use solar energy to heat water and when the 13th is constructed on the Far East Side, solar will also provide electricity, said Jeanne Hoffman, facilities and sustainability manager for the city.

The city is installing its largest solar energy system on the revamped Central Library and on an engineering building on Emil Street. Lift stations and lights along some pike paths are also solar powered and a 10-kilowatt system has been installed on the roof of the Alicia Ashman Branch library on the Far West Side.

"Power prices continue to go up and so, as they go up and products for solar continue to gown in price, solar is becoming more and more attractive," Hoffman said. "It's also a very passive form of getting energy."


  • Solar