Wisconsin college readies largest rooftop solar array in state

In New York or California, $1 million can get you a middle-of-the-road house in a trendy part of town. At Wisconsin's Madison College, that could just about pay your electric bill for a year.

The community college, which has about 37,000 students, spends about $1 million every year to power the main building on its Truax Campus. So to keep costs down, the college started construction this month week on a massive solar rooftop project. It's set to be the biggest solar project in Wisconsin when it's completed in the fall.

"It's about 20 tractor-trailers' worth of equipment," said Ken Walz, a Madison College instructor who is leading the project. 

"We have a really big energy footprint," Walz explained. That's in part because of the programs at the school, a community college with many vocational programs.

"We have a lot of computer screens running all day. We have a lot of welders. We run an automotive program," he said. 

When done, the project is expected to save the college up to $250,000 a year, Walz estimated. On a sunny July day, the panels can generate two-thirds of the building's power needs. 

The project costs a total of $3 million, Walz said, with the school putting in $2.5 million of that. In other words, it will pay for itself within 10 years. It's expected to last three times that long. Elsewhere, the college makes use of a wind turbine and geothermal heating systems as another cost-saving measure.  

"Anytime we can hold the costs down, it allows us to hold down the costs for the taxpayers; it helps us holds down tuition," he said.