With the uncertainty of the last several years, and rising prices across the board, the move toward greater energy efficiency at home and in business may be just the bright spot people need to make the leap toward installing solar on their properties. U.S. Solar, owned by Bill McDowell of Lake Mills and founded in 2012, has been operating in the City since he moved permanently to the area several years ago from Illinois. Prior to the move McDowell bought a cottage on Rock Lake in 1996 and a home on College Street in 2008.

“U.S. Solar Network sounds big but actually network is the key word.” McDowell said. “We bring together a team of local area solar experts, engineers, contractors, electricians and installers to ensure the highest quality at the best price.”

For McDowell there is a lot of opportunity in Jefferson County to advance solar. The company has installed 250 kilowatts of power here since the start of 2020.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar generation was three percent of U.S. electricity in 2020, but it’s projected to be 20% by 2050. Humans have been using solar energy for centuries, the first solar-powered electricity was produced in the United States in 1954.

McDowell’s first big project in the area was the solar array at the Humane Society of Jefferson County. The array includes 163 panels, which save the animal shelter over $1,000 a month.

“Our panels were projected to fill about 70% of our electrical usage,” said Jeff Okazaki, executive director of the Human Society of Jefferson County. “There’s some variation with snow coverage and the way that Wisconsin handles electrical over generation buy back, but overall we’re saving somewhere between $8,000-10,000 per year. This is one of the most fantastic benefits of having solar. It’s one of the very few projects where we can do a typical brick and mortar style fundraising campaign and still see ongoing operational dollars come out of the end result.”

The project had the support of the community and worked with the Fort Atkinson Community Foundation.

“We also had grants and rebates through the utilities for installing solar. Bill also helped connect us with Solar for Good who made a significant donation of solar panels that helped reduce the overall cost of the project. The rest of the funds we raised in a capital campaign through direct community support which allowed us to completely cover the cost of the project and start benefiting from return on day one.”

With commercial projects under his belt like the one at the humane society, Watson Ace Hardware in Lake Mills (135 panels) and the Jefferson Area Business Center (305 panels), McDowell is no stranger to installing large solar projects, but he also helps pull together the resources for residential projects saving homeowners money and saving the environment. In Wisconsin, the average payback range of installing solar panels is eight to 13 years, depending on numerous factors such as location, panel orientation, tilt, shading, electrical usage and more. The average residential installation requires about 16 panels or six kilowatts.

McDowell argues the benefits of solar are undeniable.

“The difference between solar energy and conventional electricity is that solar energy does not rely on the use of fossil fuels, does not pollute air or water and does not contribute to global warming, making it the preferable option for many. Solar energy works with the Earth’s natural resources, whereas conventional electricity depletes or harms them.”

While the cost of installing solar panels or a solar electric system had decreased, some may still find the initial investment intimidating.

“The key is remembering that installation is a one-time event, whereas paying for conventional electricity is a frequent, ongoing and an expensive obligation, especially as electric rates continue to skyrocket,” McDowell said.

The solar industry has spent decades slashing the cost of generating electricity direct from the sun. Now it’s focusing on making panels even more powerful and efficient. The average cost of a solar panel dropped by 90% from 2010 to 2020.

US Solar Network installed a system for Thomas Skupniewitz of Lake Mills five years ago, which he said was to lessen his family’s carbon footprint.

“Bill is a great communicator and stays abreast of new technologies,” he said.

The industry is also creating jobs in record numbers. According to the most recent National Solar Jobs Census report by The Solar Foundation, solar energy adds jobs 17 times faster than the overall US economy. As of 2020, there were approximately 250,000 solar energy workers nationwide.

His interest in solar started 15 years ago when McDowell co-founded a group of concerned community activists in Evanston, Ill. The group worked with the City to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the overall carbon footprint in the area.

“The group was interested in developing a solar group purchasing program. So, I took on the task of educating myself and others on the benefits of solar power,” he said.

McDowell strives to educate the community on the benefits and resources available on going solar.

“My personal goal is get as much solar energy installed in our community as possible, no matter who installs it. The time for solar energy is now and we are way behind,” he said. “The sun is a renewable energy source. Fossil fuels will eventually run out, but sunlight won’t. For that reason, solar energy is highly reliable. And unlike fossil fuels which are expensive to mine and utilize, it doesn’t’t cost anything to receive sunlight.”

McDowell hopes to help contribute to the push the United States toward greater energy independence.

“By increasing our capacity to generate electricity from the sun, we can also insulate our country from price fluctuations in global energy markets.”

Brian Watson, owner of Watson Ace Hardware in Lake Mills, saw McDowell speak about his company at a Lake Mills Rotary Club meeting last year and was intrigued by the idea of installing solar on the flat roof of his business.

“I was familiar with two of the businesses that he showed pictures of at the meeting. When I got back to the store, I thought what a great opportunity for us. Our roof is flat and the panels would be out of sight. A couple of weeks later I emailed Bill about our project,” Watson said.

The process of installing the panels at the hardware store took about two months. Watson said a large vacuum truck had to be utilized to remove the stones from the roof for the panels to be installed.

“The final tedious step was getting the electrical tied into the panels,” he said thanking Lake Mills Light and Water for the coordination in the hook up. “They bent over backwards to assist with the installation.”

For Watson’s business the project made sense.

“I believe business owners should investigate solar and see if it makes sense for them. We all should be mindful of our environment and how we can best preserve it,” he said. “As a local business owner, we use other local businesses as much as we can. We are very fortunate to have Bill and U.S. Solar right here in Lake Mills. He is someone that you can trust and can count on.”

Those who install a solar array are eligible for the investment tax credit, which allows customers the ability to deduct 26% of the cost of installing a complete solar energy system from their federal tax bill. In Wisconsin, Focus on Energy offers financial incentives.

“The credit was created to help Americans invest in solar and to incentivize other renewable energy solutions,” McDowell said.

Those interested in learning more on how to install a solar array on their property or to view local projects visit www.ussolarnetwork.com or contact McDowell at bill@ussolarnetwork.com.