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This story was co-published with Wisconsin Watch.
At this point, Cal Couillard thought he would be well on his way to spending down the philanthropic fund he created as the inventor of precision rollers.
Instead, Couillard Solar Foundation is growing as its unique model helps Wisconsin schools and nonprofits benefit from solar despite policy barriers.
The Wisconsin business leader created the solar foundation in 2017. Its flagship program, Solar for Good, started offering grants that year to help nonprofits and municipal organizations buy solar panels. Since 2019, it’s provided solar panels instead of cash, allowing it to purchase equipment in bulk and bring down the cost. The program is administered by Renew Wisconsin.
In its first five years, Solar for Good has helped 161 organizations install 7.6 megawatts of solar — enough to power 1,500 Wisconsin households — despite the state’s lack of legal clarity around third-party-owned solar installations and the difficulty non-taxed entities have accessing federal solar incentives.
Last year the foundation revised its operating model again in a way that means it can keep expanding and donating panels into the future, rather than tapping out its funding as initially planned.
Now, the foundation donates enough solar panels for about half of a recipient’s planned array, and it encourages the organizations to buy the additional panels directly from the foundation. The marginal revenue can then be plowed back into more solar panel donations. Recipients are welcome to buy their panels elsewhere if they choose, but last year, 23 out of 24 grantees elected to buy panels from the foundation.
“People love the idea that their purchase helps fund the Solar for Good and [its offshoot] Solar on Schools programs,” said Jackie Harrison-Jewell, executive director of the Couillard Solar Foundation. “We’ve had support from installers and other customers, who specifically let us know that they are buying from us because they know that the money from their purchase goes to support Solar for Good and Solar on Schools.”
The recipients in the latest round of grants include two affordable housing providers, a food bank, an animal shelter, several churches, the Racine Dominican Eco-Justice Center, a library, a rotary club and community centers.
“These organizations see solar as part of their commitment to climate change and social justice, and it’s reducing their utility expenses,” Harrison-Jewell said. “They’re very excited they get this opportunity. Many of the recipients said things like, ‘If we didn’t have this grant we wouldn’t be able to do it.’”
Helping tenants and taxpayers
Even after weatherizing its affordable housing units, the housing and social service agency Couleecap in central Wisconsin saw that its clients were paying too much of their monthly income for energy bills. So the organization was determined to reduce that energy burden and help mitigate climate change by installing solar panels.
Now, more than 200 solar panels acquired with the help of Solar for Good will power two housing developments, slashing bills for residents and meaning they will no longer need to rely on strapped state energy assistance programs year after year.
At the eight-unit building that Couleecap owns in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, tenants have all been receiving state energy bill assistance averaging about $375 per year and paying an average of $1,566 in electric bills annually, said Couleecap executive director Hetti Brown.
Once the solar array is online, Brown said it’s estimated that the tenants will collectively save over $10,000, and taxpayers will save $3,450 that otherwise would have gone to energy assistance. The array is constructed, but cannot be interconnected until equipment is available that’s held up in a supply chain issue. Along with installing solar, Couleecap switched the building from less-efficient wall air conditioning units to heat pumps.
Couleecap is also arranging solar through Solar for Good for an eight-unit building owned by the Monroe County housing authority.
“The goal is to not only reduce their energy costs but help them become economically self-sufficient so they do not have to continue to rely on energy assistance from the state to maintain their heating and cooling,” Brown said.
The installer for both arrays is Ethos Green Power Cooperative, a worker-owned cooperative founded by Alicia Leinberger.
“Alicia has been at the table for years helping us dream up pilot initiatives and advocate at the state level,” Harrison-Jewell said. “When we are ready to move forward, she helps us put applications together for [state program] Focus on Energy and Solar for Good.”
Solar for Good gave Couleecap $11,000 to $12,000 worth of panels at each site, Brown said, with the total cost of the arrays being $86,000 in LaCrosse and $92,000 in Monroe County.
Previously, the organization tapped Solar for Good to get panels on its administrative building.
“Now that we’ve seen that benefit, we are able to advocate more clearly for the benefits of solar for our clients and neighbors, and taking that further to install it on our housing buildings,” Brown said. “That’s the power of programs like Solar for Good. The program is flexible enough that it enables nonprofit organizations to access solar not only to advance our mission but to help those we serve access solar — people who have been locked out of the solar movement.”
Fighting hunger, cutting emissions
The Milwaukee Hunger Task Force provides food to about 50,000 people, especially seniors and families.
Through Solar for Good, the task force is getting an 89-kilowatt, 165-panel array covering 6,000 square feet of the warehouse where it distributes food to service providers around the area. The facility has large energy needs given the banks of refrigerators.
“Environmental stewardship and financial stewardship are certainly key aspects; we have wanted to pursue clean energy and renewable energy and sustainable energy for some time,” said task force associate director Matt King. “This has been something that we’ve been striving to accomplish and put into place.”
Over 25 years, the array is expected to save the organization almost a quarter-million dollars. While Solar for Good donated about half the panels, a donor covered the cost for the rest of the project.
“We can put those savings back into our mission and meet that need,” King said. “We’re really appreciative of the support we’ve received from the Solar for Good grant, and it made the prospect of supporting this project really appealing to one of our donors.”
King said they are hoping to add more and more panels on the 120,000-square-foot roof.
“Our hope is that we can continue to engage our donors in the local community to support this effort and further offset the needs of the facility with future expansion,” King said.
The food bank has a fleet of vehicles that deliver food to other providers. King hopes that they can increasingly install electric vehicles, which would be powered by solar on their site.
Schools and canopies
The foundation, which has donated solar panels to the police station and other entities in its hometown of Deerfield near Madison, also recently spun off a separate Solar for Schools program that raises revenue by selling solar while also giving grants.
Schools previously had received panels through Solar for Good, but Harrison-Jewell said the larger scale and different needs of schools meant a separate program make sense. The foundation provides curriculum to help schools teach students about renewable energy, and Harrison-Jewell said they are working to develop more hands-on support for educators.
Couillard himself designed a “solar canopy,” a wooden pergola-type structure covered with solar panels, that schools can use for an “outdoor classroom,” as Pineview Elementary in Reedsburg is doing. Harrison-Jewell said that as part of their schools program, they are selling the canopy and then giving schools a cash grant to help them recoup the investment or use on curriculum.
The tilted canopy, which can also be bought by any customer, was designed to allow bifacial solar panels to generate energy from sunlight bouncing off concrete or snow on the ground.
“It produces power earlier and continues to produce later in the day,” compared to solar panels that only generate on top, Harrison-Jewell said. “In winter when the light is more indirect, it’s particularly effective with bi-facial. When snow is on the ground, the light reflects off the snow.”
There are five of Couillard’s solar canopies currently operating, three of them on foundation property, and another one is planned for the local fire department. Harrison-Jewell said a canopy at the foundation’s own headquarters faces east, but after a snowstorm it heats up, melts the snow and starts producing power more quickly than the array the foundation installed on the local police station, even though that array faces south.
“It’s a beautiful design,” she said. “It’s very effective for this area, even with snow.”