PV in Sunny Milwaukee

The surface of the earth receives a tremendous amount of energy from the sun daily. Even though the amount of solar energy striking the earth at a specific place and time can vary greatly with latitude, time of day, season, sky conditions and other factors, sunlight is available throughout the United States for conversion to electricity using photovoltaics (PVs). PVs are not just for the Sunbelt states; building owners throughout the country are beginning to install them. Lemberg Electric Co. Inc., located in Milwaukee, is one contractor that is expanding into the PV market.

Lemberg Electric is headquartered in a two-story 48,000-square-foot building on a 2.5-acre site in Brookfield, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. It was founded in 1928 by William and Clara Lemberg. In 1992, the company was incorporated in Wisconsin and has since become the largest employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) electrical construction firm in southeastern Wisconsin. Lemberg Electric typically employs about 150 office and field employees that are organized into five divisions, and it has a total revenue of around $26 million annually. Lemberg Electric’s six divisions are construction, service, design/build, energy technologies, sign and lighting, and data/communications.

Getting into PV
Like many electrical contracting firms that begin doing solar work, Lemberg Electric got into the emerging PV market through its existing customer base. Lemberg Electric’s first PV projects were for its long-time Milwaukee customer, GE Healthcare. In 2008, GE Healthcare approached Dave Washebek, president and CEO of Lemberg Electric, about installing an additional 240--kilowatt peak (kWp) direct current (DC) array on the GE Healthcare Global Headquarters building. This array consisted of 1,200 GE 200-watt peak (Wp) PV modules, an inverter to transform the DC into 60-hertz alternating current (AC), and balance of system (BOS) components. GE had previously installed 134 kWp DC system on its headquarters building, which was the largest PV system in Wisconsin; GE wanted to expand the system further. Lemberg Electric worked closely with GE’s facility manager Chris Jurik on the PV system project.

Before the GE headquarters project was completed, Jurik approached Washebek about installing another PV system at GE’s Research Park facility that opened in 2006, which houses GE’s Clinical Systems, Global IT, and Interventional Cardiology & Services. This project included an array of 672 GE 200Wp PV modules for an installed DC capacity of 134.4 kWp, along with the inverter and BOS components. While Lemberg Electric had been monitoring the PV market in California and the southwestern United States through contacts with other electrical contracting firms that were involved in PV work, Washebek said he did not think the PV market would emerge so quickly in Wisconsin.

Washebek credits a lot of the success of these first two PV projects to his staff’s willingness to take on a new market challenge, the training provided by the local joint apprenticeship training center (JATC), and the members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494, including Ron Wahl, who was the superintendent on both the GE projects.

In July 2010, Lemberg Electric completed its latest design/build PV project by designing and installing an array consisting of 78 PV modules with a DC rating of 18 kWp on the new corporate headquarters of Environmental Systems Inc. (ESI). Like Lemberg Electric, ESI’s new headquarters building is also located in Brookfield and is known as Gateway West Sustainable 1. According to an ESI press release, the PV array is expected to produce 22,000 kilowatt-hours DC per year, which will offset about 8 percent of the building’s annual electric energy use and reduce CO2 emissions by 24 tons annually.

But how did Lemberg get into the market so quickly? Like a lot of electrical contracting firms, Lemberg Electric has both a construction and service division, and for the past 25 years, it has also offered design/build services to its customers. This allows Lemberg Electric to be a one-stop shop for its residential, commercial and industrial customers interested in energy-efficiency projects that include PV systems. Washebek sees PV systems as a part of Lemberg Electric’s energy services that can also help customers with lighting retrofits, lighting controls and other energy-saving technologies. Understanding that financing the up-front cost of an energy project is a major obstacle for its customers, Lemberg Electric has also partnered with a local business leasing and finance company to help its customers afford energy-efficiency projects, such as PV systems today that will improve their buildings’ operating efficiency and bottom line for years to come.

Sunny Milwaukee?
Milwaukee is located at a latitude of 42.95° north and has an average solar radiation of 4.5 kWh/m2/day on a flat-plate solar collector facing south at a tilt equal to Milwaukee’s latitude, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Solar Radiation Data Manual for Flat-Plate and Concentrating Collectors, rredc.nrel.gov/solar/pubs/redbook. This average solar radiation is equivalent to peak sun hours of 4.5 hours per day for a PV module rated at standard test conditions. The table above compares Milwaukee’s average daily solar radiation for a flat-plate collector tilted at latitude to other parts of the United States that are considered sunnier.

There is no doubt that there are sunnier cities in the United States and that the same PV array will be more productive in these cities than in Milwaukee. With the exception of Phoenix, the southern cities average solar radiation is 11 to 27 percent greater than that of Milwaukee. This difference is much less than most people think it would be. Also, as Washebek points out, with utility electricity prices increasing, PV module efficiencies increasing, and PV module production costs decreasing, PV will continue to become more cost competitive and attractive to customers who want to lock in their electric energy cost with PV systems for 20 to 30 years.

Barriers to PV market entry
There are currently 10 states and one territory that require solar contractor licenses to install PV systems, and Wisconsin is not one. However, Wisconsin and its utilities support and encourage energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects, including PV systems, with a variety of incentive programs. One of the most important state-incentive programs in Wisconsin is Focus on Energy, which is a rebate program that covers a variety of energy projects including PV systems. For a building owner to be eligible for a Focus on Energy PV system rebate, the PV system must be placed by a full-service installation firm that has at least one person who is certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) as a solar PV installer. Wisconsin maintains a list of full service solar electric installation firms that meet the Focus on Energy requirements, which includes having a NABCEP-certified PV installer.

Lemberg Electric, along with other Wisconsin contractors, recognized the need to become a full-service solar electric installation firm so that its customers would qualify for the Focus on Energy Rebates. However, NABCEP certifies individuals and not firms as solar PV installers. Therefore, Washebek, who is a licensed electrical contractor and registered design engineer in Wisconsin, decided to apply for and take the certification examination.

Washebek took a 45-hour advanced PV course that included both classroom instruction and hands-on training and then sat for the 60-question NABCEP PV installer examination. Washebek passed the examination on his first try but maintains that it was one of the most difficult tests that he has ever taken. However, he recommends that electrical contractors considering the PV market become a NABCEP-certified PV installer, regardless of whether it is required in their area. This certification is being increasingly recognized by architects and engineers and is finding its way into project specifications.

Emerging PV market
Across the United States, energy services including PV system design and installation is a growth market for electrical contracting firms like Lemberg Electric. Most states have net metering programs that allow the building owner to install a grid-tied PV system and use the utility grid as a storage device. Some states and municipalities are experimenting with feed-in tariffs that guarantees a premium price for PV generated energy over a 15- to 20-year period. In addition, federal, state, local, and utility-incentive programs, such as Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy, can significantly reduce the PV system’s initial cost, resulting in a reduced payback period for customers. These incentives coupled with increasing electricity prices, decreasing PV system installed costs, and the opportunity to lock-in electric energy costs for 20 to 30 years with PV systems is creating a growth market for PV systems throughout the United States.

This article is the result of a research project investigating the potential of the emerging PV market for the electrical contracting firm sponsored by ELECTRI International. The author thanks the foundation for its support.

GLAVINICH is director of Architectural Engineering and Construction Programs and an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 and tglavinich@ku.edu.

About the Author

Thomas E. Glavinich

Freelance Writer

Thomas E. Glavinich was an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. His tenure as one of Electrical Contractor's most trusted and reliable source of industry research...

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