Alliant Energy

This rendering shows how ground-level solar panels will look at Alliant Energy's headquarters. For optimal solar-power generation, the ground-level fixtures will be built on the perimeter of Alliant's property to avoid shadows from the building itself. Alliant plans to add additional walking trails on its property and install signs to inform visitors about the project. 

Alliant Energy

Solar-energy generation is a natural fit for warm-weather locations, but can it work in Wisconsin?

Alliant Energy believes it can. To verify that, the company will study solar energy generation in Madison in a multi-year project.

Construction on the project’s $5 million first phase started Monday on the 25 acres of land that houses Alliant’s 326,000-square-foot headquarters at 4902 N. Biltmore Lane, and is expected to be complete by year’s end.

Phase one includes ground-level and building-mounted solar panels, solar parking canopies covering nearly 50 parking spaces, 13 electric vehicle charging stations, solar café tables and a battery energy storage system. More than 1,000 solar panels will be installed from multiple manufacturers, with 11 types of panels used in all.

A second phase is expected in 2016 that will add more panels as well as a solar-powered bus stop shelter that will have ports for riders to charge their phones. Also, a station for bike-sharing program Madison B-Cycle is expected to be added. Plans for the third phase have yet to be developed.

Alliant’s goal is to study how solar energy can work in Madison, determine the technology that works best in a cold-weather climate and share results with interested parties. The company will use data collected while planning future renewable-energy projects, according to Alliant spokesman Scott Reigstad.

Rick Zimmerman, Alliant lead project controls planner, said that just like wind power, the cost of solar-energy generation equipment has dropped while technology has improved, making it a viable option in the Midwest.

“We wouldn’t say that Wisconsin and the Midwest are as sunny as California and Florida are, but we do have our fair share of sunny days,” Zimmerman said, adding it is becoming more financially feasible to use solar in the Midwest.

The panels’ colors will blend with other buildings in the American Center business park where Alliant is located on the city’s Far East Side. Many of the panels on fixed posts will be installed around the perimeter of Alliant’s property to avoid shadows from the building itself, Zimmerman said. The panels are typically 2½ feet wide by 4 to 4½ feet long, depending on the manufacturer, Zimmerman said.

“One of the key project goals is to have a monitoring interface available onsite and online where anyone can view real-time performance data,” said John Larsen, president of Alliant’s Wisconsin utility. “We’ll be examining information on how the structures work and interact, as well as how they impact building operations. In addition, we’ll research their operation, maintenance and safety aspects.”

To that end, Alliant is collaborating with the Electric Power Research Institute to collect and analyze site data. It also expects to bring in other partners in the coming months and years to maximize the project’s educational, training, safety and operational benefits. EPRI’s three-prong study includes rooftop power generation, battery storage and panels that are installed on a dual axis to follow the sun from sunrise to sunset.

The 30-kilowatt-hour battery storage system will be used to study how the utility and its customers could best store power for optimal use later.

“We’re always centered around high-peak times and how do we meet those high-peak loads,” Zimmerman said. One thing to encourage using power during off-peak hours is to charge more for power during peak-power-usage periods. If you own a battery system for your house, that’s when you want to discharge your batteries because you’re saving money, he added.

Alliant will share knowledge gained from building, operating and maintaining the structures, Zimmerman said, as the data will be pertinent to other utilities in the Midwest. Also, if homeowners are considering installing solar panels, they will be able to research what panels perform the best in this environment. However, Alliant won’t recommend particular products. “We’re not really pushing business one way or the other,” Zimmerman said.

Phase I of the project is expected to generate up to 350 kilowatts of power, which will offset power to Alliant’s headquarters. Phase II is expected to generate an additional 75 kilowatts of power. However, Zimmerman said, because the panels will be tested in many different ways, the power generation could sometimes be less than maximim.

Reigstad said the company has briefed the state Public Service Commission on the project. The company doesn’t need PSC approval to move ahead. However, the PSC can determine what portion of the costs could be charged to Alliant customers in Wisconsin.