Solar panels

The future is bright, according to advocates, industry professionals and state representatives planning to host a public discussion on solar energy in Wyoming.

Hosted by the Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, members of the public are invited to a panel discussion at Altitude Chophouse & Brewery, 320 S. Second St., to explore the challenges and opportunities in expanding the country’s fastest growing industry in the state.

“We have the eighth-best solar resource in the country — that’s just our generation potential,” said Hesid Brandow, the resource council’s solar campaign coordinator. “However, we rank 43rd in jobs. Right now, solar jobs are growing faster than any other sector of the U.S. economy. There’s a major boom happening right now and currently, Wyoming is missing out on that.”

The U.S. Department of Labor lists “solar photovoltaic installers” — essentially, rooftop solar panel installers — as the one profession likely to double in the coming decade. The Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 106 percent growth in the field between 2016-2026 and states the median pay in 2017 for an installer was $39,490.

Wyoming Outdoor Council Steff Kessler said bringing solar jobs — a rare profession here despite Wyoming’s reputation as an energy state — could allow the state to capitalize on a rapidly expanding and profitable national trend.

“The solar industry has been booming the last five or 10 years because solar panel costs have dropped so significantly,” Kessler said. “It’s a very efficient way now to generate energy on-site. It’s cost-effective and we’re seeing a lot of innovation in the field and our laws have not kept up with that growth.”

The panel discussion will feature Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, Scott Kane of Creative Energies in Lander, Stacey Schmid of Range Solar and Wind in Casper and Kevin Beers of Wyco Wind and Solar in Cheyenne.

“This is in response to a rising tide of installation around the state,” Brandow said. “In the last few years, people have really starting taking advantage of opportunities to go solar in the state. This conversation is going to look into some of the current barriers that exist and how to potentially solve some of those barriers for increasing solar installation further.”

One significant barrier, Brandow said, is the net metering cap, which is set by state law at 25 kilowatts for both residential and commercial entities. Net metering gives solar users credit for energy produced but not consumed — such as during the summer months and during the day — that is exchanged later for consumable energy when less solar is being produced — such as during the winter and at night.

While capping that benefit at 25 kilowatts is fine for a household, it is woefully inadequate for even a small business, Brandow said.

“Most residential users aren’t going to go over that,” she said. “However, for most businesses, they tend to use a lot more energy than your typical residential user and so there are a lot of businesses that would be interested in installation (but) that cap makes it really uneconomical for them.”

The net metering cap and changing Wyoming’s policy are examples of a challenge and a solution, respectively, that will be explored by the panel during the discussion today. But the panel will also talk about opportunities, as well — such as Wyoming’s abundance of sunlight and even the state’s culture.

“We are a state where we really like our independence,” Brandow said. “We’re rugged, we like to do things our own way and solar is one opportunity for that.”

In addition to its status as a renewable source of energy — and the potential for statewide changes that could make it beneficial for the state economy — Brandow said solar is already economical for many residential consumers in Wyoming.

“Most people who go solar — their system is going to pay off in 7-10 years and prices are only dropping. Anything after that is free energy and most systems are warrantied for 20 years, so you’re looking at 10 years plus of free energy.”

Kessler added solar energy is turning out to be especially useful for rural Wyomingites.

“As we look at our energy future in the state, distributed energy has a lot of benefits that get overlooked, because it is small-scale on-site generation, and so it really saves in terms of costs for transmission,” she said.

During the event, the Powder River Basin Resource Council will provide appetizers and the Wyoming Outdoor Council will buy the first round of beverages.

The Future of Solar in Wyoming runs from 5:30-7 p.m. today at Altitude Chophouse & Brewery. The event is free to the public. Call Brandow at 752-9028 for more information.

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