Wis. professor cycles around the Midwest for solar

Source: By Kari Lydersen, Energy News Network/Associated Press • Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On Jim Tinjum’s #bikethewind tour last year, he often saw the installations he visited for miles in advance — turbines towering gracefully in the distance.

On his recent #bikethesun tour, covering about 1,200 miles of the Upper Midwest, he often had to pedal around in search of his solar destinations.

“Some of the sites were nestled into the landscape pretty well,” said Tinjum, an associate professor of engineering with a specialty in renewable energy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The goal of the two journeys was the same: to raise awareness of the ways renewable energy is providing and could further provide clean power in the Midwest. The solar bike trip, which concluded in August, took Tinjum through a plethora of solar gardens in Minnesota, Invenergy’s Grand Ridge Energy Center in Illinois, a Wisconsin solar-powered coffee roaster, and countless homes and businesses with rooftop solar.

The trip helped generate excitement and awareness of solar energy, he said, in part through local media coverage and social media, where his team estimated 1 million people have heard about the bike trip. The trip has also given him the chance to talk firsthand with engineers, developers, landowners and contractors around the Midwest about the challenges and benefits of siting and installing solar, insight he plans to share with others in the field.

The solar tour had an extra bright spot: Tinjum used it to raise funds for solar on a home for abused children in Puerto Rico, where the island’s energy system was ravaged by Hurricane Maria a year ago and has yet to recover.

Tinjum’s fiance and future mother-in-law are Puerto Rican, he noted, and he visited the island in May to help restore renewable energy installations damaged by the hurricane.

Tinjum is working with the university’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders and graduate students in the Sustainable Systems Engineering group he advises to install solar for Hogar Albergue para Niños Jesús de Nazaret in Mayagüez, a city on the island’s western coast. The installation will save the nonprofit institution about $500 a month in energy bills, freeing up more funds for the work with children, Tinjum said.

More than half of the estimated $145,000 cost of the project has been raised. An energy efficiency upgrade is in the works at the home, and the solar should be installed by 2020, Tinjum said. In December, he’ll travel there with some University of Wisconsin students to work with consultants on the project.

“Our goal is to install a high-quality project and have that serve as a blueprint for other projects on the island,” he said.

One of the benefits of bike touring, Tinjum noted, is that you observe your surroundings more closely than you would zipping through in a car. Among other things, he was visually struck by the difference in solar proliferation between states.

Community solar gardens were even more prominent in Minnesota than he expected. He blogged about them as a model for Wisconsin, Puerto Rico and elsewhere.

Tinjum noted that on the solar front, Wisconsin leaves a lot to be desired.

“Even though I’m from Wisconsin, I see Wisconsin as playing catch-up in the role of advancing solar,” said Tinjum, noting that his department teaches a course for solar installers, engineers and designers.

He was also struck by seeing contiguous 1-megawatt community solar gardens in Minnesota that each had their own interconnection to the grid, an arguably inefficient model necessitated by a limit on the size of community solar installations.

“That showed we just need sound policy and legislation that makes sense to give customers this choice they want and make it work,” Tinjum said.

As an engineer, Tinjum delved into the technical specifics of sites he visited on his trip. He was especially impressed by the Grand Ridge Energy Center, including about 210 MW of wind, 20 MW of solar and over 30 MW of battery storage, used largely for grid regulation.

“I see that hybrid site as something possibly we will see more and more of,” he said.

He noted that the Wisconsin utility WPPI was a sponsor of his trip, and that he expects to see utilities and other players invest more in solar in the Midwest and Wisconsin in coming years, just as wind has grown exponentially since he started working in wind energy a decade ago.