Let there be light

Solar plant bolsters Manitowoc County’s energy reputation

Posted on Mar 15, 2017 :: Feature
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

WITH THE ANNOUNCEMENT of a new solar energy center north of Two Rivers, Manitowoc County took its biggest step yet in establishing itself as a hub for sustainable energy.

WPPI Energy and NextEra Energy Resources unveiled plans to build the 100-megawatt center — the largest in Wisconsin — on land adjacent to the Point Beach Nuclear Plant. When completed in 2021, it will have capacity to serve more than 23,000 customers in three states with clean energy.

Bryan Garner, manager of communications for NextEra, says the project was an ideal fit for his company, a leading developer of wind and sun energy, and WPPI, which was looking to diversify.

Garner says ease of transport and infrastructure made Two Rivers a good site for a solar plant. Solar energy uses a large amount of land, and the facility will take a good portion of the land around the nuclear plant, he says.

“It’s a great opportunity for some of the smaller utilities to benefit from renewable energy,” says Garner, whose company also owns and operates the Point Beach Nuclear Plant.

One of those companies is Two Rivers Water & Light, which plans to buy solar energy from WPPI. “We’re just delighted,” says Ken Kozak, electric utility director.

Between nuclear and solar energy, Kozak notes that the region will soon produce energy from two zero-carbon emissions sources. He says the development helps further the utility’s objective of buying stable and reliable, renewable sources of energy. 

The solar plant, which will add 150 to 200 jobs during its construction period in 2021, will join a flourishing sustainable energy cluster in the lakefront area. Manitowoc is already home to companies devoted to the LED lighting and wind industries.

Neal Verfuerth, founder and CEO of LED lighting manufacturer energybank, says he’s happy to see the site near the nuclear plant repurposed for the solar plant. He isn’t surprised to see the abundance of sustainable energy companies in the area, and says he’s observed the phenomenon in many places.

“You’ll see this concentration of industries,” he says. “It’s amazing how it works out that way.”

For his company, Verfuerth says, Manitowoc makes perfect sense. It’s centrally located for shipping, and the area offers skilled laborers with a strong work ethic. In addition, he says, it allows access to strong subcontractors and other companies that can support his manufacturing operations.

Verfuerth says that while people are coming around to LED, it can take some convincing. “It’s a little more challenging with LED than fluorescent because the payoff is a little longer.”

Energybank, however, is winning over customers with its technology using reflective lenses to create a comfortable lighting environment, Verfuerth says. Energybank is doing especially well with auto dealers, and he sees potential in the industrial, retail, health care and school sectors.

“They’re delighted with what we’re doing for them,” Verfuerth says. “They like the light as well as the savings.”

Manitowoc’s Orion Energy, a company Verfuerth established and eventually left, is celebrating its own successes under the leadership of CEO John Scribante. The LED lighting company recently received $900,000 in orders to retrofit 70 health care facilities, announced the addition of 30 new jobs and won a Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year special award in the category of market adaptability.

Scribante echoes Verfuerth’s praise of the solid work ethic in Manitowoc and says the company has built a clean, high-tech manufacturing work environment that offers a strong culture.

“Orion technology has saved companies over 51 billion kilowatt hours in energy, nearly $4 billion in energy costs and displaced 32 million tons of carbon dioxide since 2001,” says Linda Diedrich, Orion’s director of marketing and communications. “To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent of removing 8 million cars from the road.”

As for the future, Diedrich says Orion is developing lighting technology that suppresses bacteria in health care facilities as well as adding color to lighting to enhance the appearance of food in grocery stores and apparel in retail environments.

Joni Konstantelos, director of investor relations and corporate communications for wind tower manufacturer Broadwind Energies, says Manitowoc offers an ideal location for its Broadwind Towers operations. The city provides deep water port access, skilled workers and a long history of high-quality manufacturing.

“We’re really trying to make our mark and help contribute to the expansion of clean energy,” Konstantelos says.

She credits wind energy for holding down consumers’ electric bills across the country and says corporations and mainstream America alike have embraced wind energy.

Between wind and solar, Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, an organization that advocates for renewable energy policies, is optimistic about the future of sustainable energy in the state, noting that prices for solar and wind energy have decreased by more than 60 percent in the last six years.

“It’s really quite the announcement,” he says. “Solar energy is really growing in Wisconsin and throughout the country.”