Bill Bailey and his wife, Gayle Chatfield, were researching energy alternatives for their energy-hungry greenhouse business just south of Bayfield along the Chequamegon Bay, an inlet of Lake Superior, when they realized they had tapped into something much bigger than themselves.

“We were looking at $800 to $900 bills each month for electricity and burning 16,000 gallons of propane,” Bailey said.

But they quickly found that out they weren’t alone in their concerns over their energy future and desire to use more renewable sources. The couple’s work with solar over the past several years led to the formation of an all volunteer-led nonprofit, Cheq Bay Renewables, which facilitates solar group buys. In a group buy, the cost is tiered so the more solar that’s installed, the lower the cost is for all involved.

CBR recently launched its 2019 solar group buy, with about 100 people expressing interest so far. Typical in these kinds of projects, about a fifth of those interested will move forward in the process, Bailey said, but with theirs, it’s been more than half.

Education is a big piece of it: “We give them the information up front,” he said, and “we connect the dots.”

CBR’s 2018 solar group buy was the largest ever in Wisconsin, at 552 kilowatts of installed solar capacity and 85 installations, including a dozen businesses, all completed over three months. The average project size was 6 kW.

The organization was honored earlier this month by RENEW Wisconsin during its Renewable Energy Summit in Madison.

“We’re real proud of that,” said Bailey, president of CBR and recently retired from the greenhouse business after 35 years. “We’re pretty excited about all the things that have happened over the last year or so.”

About five years ago, Bailey installed a solar photovoltaic system and a couple of biomass boilers to help reduce their propane use, saving hundreds of dollars on electricity and about 16,000 gallons of propane each month.

“We were just amazed at how well all the systems worked,” he said.

He and his wife began promoting the concept of a solar garden locally, and a couple of years later, under strong local leadership and by putting out solid information, had completed the largest solar project ever done that far north. A nonprofit organization was formed and grant assistance received. The group has begun looking into municipal projects in the Bayfield, Washburn and Drummond areas.

Among the sites are schools, sewer plants and a county garage. Many of these sites represent 100 kW each, and the total project size would be 635 kW, Bailey said, adding, “Economy of scale drives the price down to the contractor.”

Other future projects could involve the city of Ashland, with about 9,000 residents, and the two area tribes, Bad River and Red Cliff.

“When they’re ready to move forward, we’ll be there for them,” Bailey said.

Let the sun shine

What the relatively small communities of Bayfield and Washburn, located in a generally economically depressed area, have been able to accomplish is impressive, Bailey said.

Group buys, sought in an effort to achieve volume discounts, most often are arranged by large municipalities. State and federal agencies have been keeping tabs on this unique project in this sparsely populated area of far-northern Wisconsin.

“They’re all watching what we’re doing up here. We can expand our model to (other areas) very easily,” he said. “The important part is we have developed two models — one for group buys and one for municipal projects — and this could be duplicated elsewhere in the U.S.”

He attributes their success to the overall mindset of those in this area; many people are artists or farmers and have an attitude of self-sufficiency. Farmers are among those reaping the biggest rewards for their investment in solar, he said.

“There’s a strong sense of environmental preservation because of the lake,” he said. “(People) want to do something about climate change.”

Another reason the project has been so successful, he said, is that it was presented to residents with a solid economic analysis to back up the concept. Project contractor Next Energy Solution in Shell Lake, also selected as the 2019 contractor, laid out attractive prices on a ready-to-install system that people could put in themselves.

“They give you a set of plans and give you the parts in a kit arrangement,” Bailey said. “They were able to reduce the price another 25 percent off the already good price.”

Especially popular with farmers and other hands-on folks, the RTI system could be purchased for $1.70 per watt, he said. In 2019, the price will be reduced to $1.57. On top of that, they can get a 30 percent tax credit and take equipment depreciation of another 20 percent.

“That’s really cheap,” he said, adding that he put in his system in 2013 for $4 per watt. “Strong economics are a big part of it.”

Some solar energy systems are going in for a quarter on the dollar and paying for themselves in three or four years, he said.

Preliminary site assessments were done for all participants, and CBR volunteers handle all the paperwork, Bailey said, adding, “We had a strong list before we picked out the contractor. That reduced the cost for the contractor so they could pass those savings along.”

Bailey said people in the area often come up and thank him for what he and others have done to promote renewable energy in northern Wisconsin. CBR has been a great way to build a sense of community in this rural area.

“A lot of people see what’s going on and thank us and are real supportive,” he said. “People are engaging; it lifts the whole level of the community. We got a thing going on here, and it’s kind of snowballing on itself. It’s rolling down the hill and it’s building.”

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