Milwaukee solar installers putting in a rooftop solar energy system on Dr. Paula Papanek's home. | Photo courtesy of Dr. Paula Papanek.

Residential solar installation in Milwaukee. | Photo courtesy of Dr. Paula Papanek.


How can we make it easier for more Americans to go solar? Lessons can be learned from the City of Milwaukee & its efforts to create a thriving, local solar market. Follow our weeklong series to hear from Milwaukee-based installers, residents and city leaders on what it’s like to be a part of this solar community. 

When Paula Papanek, PhD and Associate Professor at Marquette University, decided to install solar panels on the roof of her Milwaukee home – it was with a clear goal in mind. “I want to be energy neutral by the time I retire,” she explained. Paula’s on a personal quest to substantially decrease her home energy costs over the next decade. Ultimately she hopes to achieve a net-zero home – producing as much energy as it consumes.

While the idea of going solar had long been part of the plan, Paula knew it was time to act after learning Helios was coming to Milwaukee. In 2011, Milwaukee’s own Helios Solar Works opened their first solar module manufacturing facility – part of the city’s emerging solar market. For Paula, the news was the signal she needed to move forward. “I wanted to support a local company,” she explained.

With her decision made, Paula took one of the most important steps in the process, “I knew I needed to take care of the low-hanging fruit,” she said.  If you’re planning to install a clean energy system like solar panels, reducing your home’s energy demand is key. For Paula, this meant scheduling a professional energy audit during which a certified inspector identifies air leaks, checks insulation and pinpoints other areas where homes waste energy.

With the energy audit complete, Paula then made a connection that would help guide her solar pursuits. “Milwaukee Shines had a solar event right down the street from me, “ she said. The event focused on a new pilot solar purchase program -- the Milwaukee Power Pack. Led by the City of Milwaukee’s solar program and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association -- the pilot offered access to incentives, low-interest solar loans and connections to locally-sourced solar products. Just as important, it gave Paula a resource she felt she could rely on, “They help you focus and cut through the millions of options. It gave me the confidence to do something to my house permanently. “

After successfully clearing hurdles – including installing a new metal roof – Paula’s 1800-era Victorian is home to a 3.6 kilowatt solar array – completed with panels and components manufactured in Milwaukee. Said Paula of the finished product, “I’m ecstatic. In my soul, I’m really happy.”

To date, the panels have generated about $170 in revenue and avoided more than 2,000 pounds of CO2 emissions. According to Paula, the system will pay for itself in about seven years. With her first solar installation now complete, Paula’s hard at work on her next project. She’s collaborating with her solar installer to add additional panels to the roof of her garage by this coming summer.

Explore the possibility of solar energy for your home. From solar hot water heaters to solar lighting – there are plenty of options. Check out our Energy Saver guide on Small Solar Electric Systems to get started.