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Power of the people: Solar farm helps individual investors

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JAMES P. LEUTE
February 7, 2012
— It's a familiar occurrence on Hazel Ridge Road north of Delavan.

Approaching vehicles slow as drivers take a closer look at what's growing in the 14-acre field next to Dan Osborn's wholesale nursery business.


Sure, last year's field of sunflowers was impressive enough.


Now, in the dead of winter, all that's left is nearly 100 solar tracking towers that are harvesting enough energy to power about 125 homes for a year.


The brainchild of Convergence Energy of Lake Geneva, the networked solar farm has taken shape in the last couple of years as a green-power investment for people who want to invest in solar energy but, for one reason or another, can't at their home or business.


The farm, which is now complete, is a series of 33 individual, limited liability companies. Each totals about 80 solar panels on three tracking towers that rotate to follow the sun from east to west. That generates about 30 percent more power than a more conventional system affixed atop a roof.


"It's kind of eerie if you're here at night and you listen to these pivot back to their starting point," said Steve Johnson, Convergence's vice president of business development.


Each LLC produces up to 20 kilowatts of electricity, and the combined solar farm is the second-largest project in Wisconsin, trailing only the massive setup at Epic Systems' corporate campus in Verona.


It is the first in the state, however, to allow individual investors.


One to three investors comprise each LLC, and the combined farm involves about 45 investors, Johnson said.


The first LLC went online in April 2010, while the last was finished just before Christmas 2011.


"We're now totally closed to new investors," Johnson said. "It was a combination of market demand, grants and incentives and the investors that led to this project.


"There seemed to be more interest toward the end of the cycle, and lots of folks were approaching us as we sold out."


Convergence Energy is a full-service provider of solar energy products, primarily focusing on every aspect of design, construction and administration. Based on a similar solar garden in Colorado, the Delavan project received funding from the state's Focus on Energy program, as well as money from the federal stimulus package.


At the farm, Convergence makes its money on the equipment and its installation. It became the first customer of Helios Solar Works, which opened last year in Milwaukee.


Depending on the specific investor agreement, the assets revert to Convergence at the end of either 11 or 20 years.


In the meantime, investors get quarterly checks for the power generated at the farm and sold to We Energies.


Johnson said individual investments ranged from $15,000 to $50,000, and investors can reasonably expect to recoup their investment in seven to 10 years. Beyond that, the quarterly checks are profit.


Convergence leases the land from Osborn, who previously worked with the company to install solar panels on one of his barns.


"Sometimes, you just throw dollars at the wind," Osborn said. "But I've always believed things like this are the right things to do.


"Twenty-five years ago I built an envelope house, not because I wanted to cut my carbon footprint, but because I didn't want to make the energy companies rich."


Osborn and his family and friends now own five of the systems at the solar farm.


"I really believe in this type of thing," he said. "I think these solar farms should be popping up all over creation.


"If We Energies wanted to do more of these, I would invest in every one of them until I ran out of money."


Osborn said the incentives cut about a third off the cost of his investment. But, he said, he would have invested even without the incentives.


"It certainly hasn't been an economic disaster," he said. "It's just the smart thing to do, more like a righteous type of thing that we should all be doing."


Osborn and Johnson said the economics have changed in the last decade to the point that it makes more sense for those who want to go green with their energy.


In fact, the price of solar panels is now about one-third of what Osborn paid when he did his barn project.


"We now use less than 1 percent solar, and there's no reason it couldn't be 15 percent to 30 percent," Johnson said. "With more education, people will learn that solar is not what it was years ago.


"The numbers just work better now, and the price of energy is going up."



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