Dane County partnered with Alliant Energy and SunVest Solar to install 33,000 solar panels at a 90-acre solar farm site in the town of Cottage Grove. Kathryn Kuntz, the director of the Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change, told The Daily Cardinal the project allowed the county to achieve its goal sooner than expected.
“Dane County has a long tradition of environmental stewardship. A key priority has been to lead by example — to green our own operations before we encourage others to do the same,” Kuntz told the Daily Cardinal. “The County Executive set a goal that the county’s electricity would be 100% renewable offset by 2025 and now we have achieved that goal in 2023, two years ahead of the goal.”
Prior to the Yahara Solar Project, only 40% of the county’s electricity was renewable, according to Kuntz.
“Overall, we will have gone from about 40,000 ETCO2 Scope 1 and 2 emissions — that is, the emissions from the fuels we burn directly, like natural gas for buildings or diesel fuel for vehicles as well as electricity and steam usage — to about 15,000 Metric Tons of CO2 equivalents, which is a drop of more than 60%,” Kuntz said.
According to Kuntz, Dane County leased the land for the solar project to Alliant Energy, who contracted with SunVest Solar, to build the solar array. Alliant pays the county in renewable energy credits, allowing the county to reach its renewable energy goals for the next few decades without any increase in energy costs.
“New clean energy projects cost less than existing coal and natural gas facilities, so now is the time to explore clean energy options,” Kuntz said.
Professor Gregory Nemet, a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher who focuses on the process of technological change in energy and its interactions with public policy, said recent advancement in renewable energy technology has made these energy transitions more feasible politically and financially.
“The falling cost of solar — nearly 90% in the past decade — has moved solar from interesting but expensive clean energy technology to the least costly way to produce power,” Nemet told The Daily Cardinal. “Consequently, there are now emerging coalitions supporting the move to solar.”
Despite the rising number of coalitions supporting solar power, Nemet said there are other roadblocks preventing the rest of the country from following Dane County’s example.
“Now that solar technology has become inexpensive and federal policy has become strongly supportive, the biggest issue holding us back from taking full advantage of solar and wind is to facilitate the permitting process so that projects can be completed swiftly,” Nemet said.
While political roadblocks surround renewable energy implementation, Dane County continues to make plans to further its clean energy initiative. In 2022, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi set another goal for county operations.
“He plans that we achieve carbon neutrality across our facilities, fleet and land operations by 2030,” Kuntz said. “Now that our electricity is 100% renewable offset, we are focused on reducing the remaining emissions from our buildings and fleet while also increasing natural carbon sequestration.”
Dane County’s climate action plan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and become carbon-neutral county-wide by 2050. Parisi previously told The Daily Cardinal that addressing climate change is one of the county’s top priorities.
“Climate change is an existential issue, and nothing else we’re talking about matters if all of a sudden the planet no longer exists,” Parisi said. “We can do a lot on the local level, not only with our direct emissions, but in inspiring others to action.”
Nemet also said there is an urgency to address climate change, and governments must find ways to swiftly transition to cleaner energy sources.
“Because addressing climate change is a motivator, it also needs to be done swiftly because with climate change moving slowly, [it] is not much different than doing nothing,” Nemet said.
Kuntz said she and the entire Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change hope other counties in Wisconsin will strive to achieve the same.
“Achieving this goal is part of our efforts to reduce countywide emissions,” Kuntz said. “Now that our electricity is 100% renewable offset, it is easier for us to encourage others to pursue a similar path.”