by Michael Vickerman | Dec 2, 2022 | PSC Priorities, Public Service Commission, Solar
Public Service Commission affirms the legality of a private contract between a utility customer and a solar provider
For a central Wisconsin family seeking to supply their home with affordable solar power, December 1, 2022, was a day worth celebrating. The Public Service Commission (PSC) ruled that their bid to access electricity under contract from a third-party-owned solar PV system on their rooftop would not conflict with Wisconsin’s public utility law.
This Declaratory Ruling arose from a petition filed in May by Vote Solar, a national solar energy advocacy organization, on behalf of one of its members, a family residing in Stevens Point. The ruling clears the way for the Vote Solar member to host an eight-kilowatt solar array and pay for that electricity under contract with a third party instead of purchasing the system and absorbing the costs upfront. The third-party provider named in this petition is Northwind Renewable Energy Cooperative, based in Amherst.
While existing law does not prohibit third-party ownership of generating equipment located on the customer’s premises, it does not expressly sanction this type of arrangement either.
In their testimony and briefs opposing Vote Solar’s petition, electric providers argued that any provision of electricity to the family by a third party, whether under a lease or a power purchase agreement, would automatically make Northwind a public utility operating illegally in another utility’s territory. Given that Wisconsin utilities have in recent years denied interconnection to customers seeking to host third-party-owned solar PV systems, Vote Solar felt it necessary to request a Declaratory Ruling on behalf of its member to clarify that the family is not “the public” and that Northwind is not a public utility. Vote Solar was represented by attorney Tim Lindl of Keyes & Fox LLP in this proceeding.
As noted in Vote Solar’s reply brief, “the utility position that two homes with the same equipment, installed the same way, connected to the same utility—with absolutely no functional difference—should be categorized differently simply because of the way the system is financed defies logic and common sense.”
A number of stakeholder comments filed in this proceeding took aim at that argument, such as the example below from Kurt Reinhold, president, and managing director of Legacy Solar Cooperative.
“Anytime someone replaces older HVAC equipment or older lighting fixtures, they are doing what they can (behind the electric and gas meters) to reduce their power demands and energy needs. It’s the same thing with solar power. If a family or an institution decides they want to use solar power to meet some of their power and energy needs, and rely less on fossil fuels, and lower their electric bills in the process, then no utility or regulatory authority should impinge upon the rights of the customer to do that. It should not matter if they take a loan, pay cash, or enter into a service agreement or lease to do so.”
Contrary to the utilities’ hyperbole, affirming the legality of the family’s PV project will not lead to dismantling Wisconsin’s regulatory utility model, as demonstrated in neighboring states like Iowa. As noted by RENEW Policy Director Michael Vickerman:
“Back in 2014, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of a similar petition filed by a local solar contractor, affirming the legality of third-party-owned generation serving host customers. That decision removed a significant economic barrier that kept nonprofit entities from pursuing onsite solar power. Access to financing opened the solar door to many school districts and local governments across the state. All have reported significant savings from the solar installations serving their facilities.”
Vickerman added, “There is simply no basis for believing that our state’s experience with third-party-financed distributed energy systems would track any differently than what we’ve seen in Iowa. But if we want to broaden solar power’s affordability and make it accessible to low-to-middle income residential customers, small businesses, hospitals, schools, local governments, places of worship, CAP agencies, and other nonprofits, we will need to allow customer use of financing from third-party institutions consistent with the framework described in the Vote Solar petition.”
Several commenters in the Vote Solar docket referenced a number of innovative clean energy projects that used third-party financing. Foremost among them is Bad River Tribe’s Ishkonige Nawadide solar microgrid project commissioned in 2021, consisting of 524 kW of solar and 1,000 kWh of storage capacity. As described by Dan Nordloh, senior vice president, and general manager of EnTech Solutions:
“As a clean energy company based in Menasha, we recently completed a microgrid project for the Bad River Tribe in Ashland using TPF [third party financing], sometimes referred to as an energy-as-a-service model. In 2016 a storm wiped out power to the tribe, leaving them stranded for days… We were able to assist them with the financing because the tribe is a sovereign nation and not subject to Wisconsin law. This system would not have been possible without the flexibility of TPF [third party financing].”
by Andrew Kell | Jul 21, 2022 | Action Alert, Advocacy, Legislative Watchlist, PSC Priorities, Solar
RENEW has assembled a team of experts to develop a comprehensive framework of Distributed Generation (DG) buyback rates as a counter-proposal to utility applications. DG buyback rates determine payments for ALL non-utility-owned electricity generation at the distribution level. For more information, please read this short RENEW parallel generation blog.
The Public Service Commission (PSC) must hear from clean energy advocates in each case. These PSC decisions will impact businesses, local governments, schools, hospitals, organizations, and individuals. We thank all of the clean energy supporters that submitted comments.
Comment periods are now closed for all cases.
WE ENERGIES (6630-TE-107)
XCEL Energy (4420-TE-109)
Alliant Energy (6680-TE-107)
RENEW appreciates the supporting comments that were submitted in favor of RENEW’s comprehensive framework for buyback rates. We believe this framework values DG, accelerates carbon emission reductions and provides a path for Wisconsinites to participate in building a clean energy future. Once again, more detail is provided in RENEW’s blog, Buyback Rates and the Business Case for Distributed Generation in Wisconsin.
For additional information on this topic, please contact Andrew Kell, Policy Analyst at RENEW.
Thank you for being a champion of clean energy in Wisconsin!
by Michael Vickerman | Jun 3, 2022 | Advocacy, PSC Priorities, Public Service Commission, Renewables, Solar
On May 26th two petitions were filed at the Public Service Commission (PSC) seeking rulings to clarify the long-simmering issue of third party-financed renewable energy generation serving individual customers behind their meters.
In one of the petitions (Docket No. 9300-DR-106), Vote Solar, a national nonprofit advocacy organization with 500 members residing in Wisconsin, asks the agency to affirm the legality of a tax-financed solar system installed at the residence of one of its Wisconsin members. In the other petition (Docket No. 9300-DR-105), Custer-based Midwest Renewable Energy Association seeks a similar affirmation, based on relevant case law precedents, enabling customers to host third party-financed electric generation systems on their premises without fear of being designated a public utility. You can read the petitions online at the above-referenced docket numbers on the PSC’s website.
Although the two petitions take different approaches to the legal question at issue, a positive ruling from the PSC on either or both of these filings would achieve the desired result: the ability of individual customers to access electricity generated on their premises from installations owned by third parties. For that reason, RENEW is urging stakeholders—solar contractors, climate and energy justice advocacy organizations, local governments, and legislators–to signal their support for both petitions through statements of support filed at the PSC.
When the PSC receives a Declaratory Ruling petition, it is obligated to open a 20-day initial comment window prior to deciding whether or not to accept that petition. Accepting the petition is a prerequisite for rendering a decision on the legal merits of the case.
RENEW is asking stakeholders to submit statements in both proceedings urging the PSC to accept the petitions and convene a proceeding to affirm third-party financing on its merits, emphasizing the following themes:
- Businesses need clarity on this legal question before they will commit to providing renewable energy to customers with equipment they would own. Though customer demand for solar PV is growing, the ongoing legal ambiguity acts as a powerful disincentive to businesses contemplating investments in equipment and staff to serve that part of the market. The risk of fighting expensive legal battles with utilities also diminishes business appetite for doing business in Wisconsin.
- Third-party financing eliminates the upfront financial commitment that often stops low and middle-income households from pursuing solar. As a market-building tool, third-party financing can expand the residential customer base more effectively than either rebates or tax credits. Third-party financing is a linchpin mechanism for securing a just energy transition that engages customers of all income levels.
- The lack of legal clarity on this issue is an unjustifiable restriction on property owners’ ability to supply themselves with clean energy produced on their premises. The PSC has had several opportunities in recent years to settle this issue but declined to do so. It is past time for the PSC to clear a path for the homeowners, businesses, and nonprofits desiring to access onsite solar power owned by a third party.
Currently, Wisconsin case law allows for third-party financing of energy projects, but some electric utilities have denied interconnection to installations that would have been owned by third parties. They contend that such installations should be regulated as public utilities, even though they are designed to supply energy to only one entity: the host customer. In our view, a business that installs and operates energy equipment on a customer’s property for that customer’s exclusive use should not be regulated as a public utility.
PSC affirmation for third-party financing is essential to spreading the benefits of clean energy to all Wisconsin utility customers.
The deadline for submitting comments is June 14th.
If you have questions or represent a business or organization that would like to engage on this issue, please contact Michael Vickerman at email@example.com.
by Michael Vickerman | Apr 28, 2022 | Advocacy, Press Release, PSC Priorities, Solar
But a federal anti-dumping investigation jeopardizes solar power build-out in Wisconsin
Having secured approval today from the Public Service Commission (PSC) to build six more solar power plants, Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin affiliate is on a trajectory to source 20% of its electricity from solar power by 2025.
The PSC decision enables Alliant to construct and operate 414 megawatts (MW) of solar generating capacity in Dodge, Grant, Green, Rock, and Waushara counties. In combination with the 675 MW of projects approved in April 2021, Alliant’s solar power portfolio now consists of a dozen projects totaling more than one gigawatt, or 1,089 MW. Alliant’s approved solar projects are listed in the table below.
Over the last three years, the PSC has approved 1,850 MW of utility-owned solar generating capacity in Wisconsin. Of that total, nearly 60% of that generation will serve Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin customers.
“Today’s approval by the PSC affirms the uniquely valuable set of benefits that large-scale solar will bring to Wisconsin’s power industry,” RENEW Executive Director Heather Allen said. “When placed in service, these 12 solar projects will support the grid long after Alliant retires its coal-fired power plants, generating clean, affordable energy here in Wisconsin while delivering a reliable revenue stream to participating landowners and host communities.”
But a recently initiated U.S. Commerce Department investigation into alleged unfair trade practices has already begun to disrupt utility-scale solar farm development nationwide, including projects in Wisconsin. If not resolved soon, the collateral damage from this investigation will likely spread to the Alliant solar portfolio approved today, causing construction delays and increasing costs.
The investigation, which could extend until August 28th, targets solar products imported from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Eighty percent (80%) of all U.S. solar panel imports are sourced from these four countries. If an unfair trade practice is identified, the Commerce Department is empowered to remedy the situation with very high tariffs on panels. For that reason, manufacturers in the targeted countries have been forced to cease production of solar panels destined for U.S. projects.
“Not even a month has gone by, and it is already disrupting solar projects at all stages of the development pipeline,” Allen said. “We are concerned that this investigation can do serious damage to the solar build-out now underway as well as undermine Wisconsin’s Clean Energy Plan.” Allen added: “We ask Senators Baldwin and Johnson and Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation to stand up for Wisconsin jobs, Wisconsin farmers, and Wisconsin’s rural economy and urge the Commerce Department to issue a negative ruling on this matter as soon as possible.”
APPROVED ALLIANT ENERGY SOLAR PROJECTS
Approved April 28, 2022
||Capacity (in MW)
Approved April 21, 2021
||Capacity (in MW)
by Heather Allen | Apr 12, 2022 | Energy Storage, PSC Priorities, Public Service Commission, Solar, Utilities, Utility Scale
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the construction of the 300-megawatt (MW) Koshkonong Solar Energy Center in early April.
Developed by Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, this solar project will provide enough emission-free electricity to power 60,000 Wisconsin homes. It will become one of Wisconsin’s largest renewable energy generators, representing 12% of Wisconsin utility-scale solar projects that have been completed or approved as of today.
The Koshkonong Solar Energy Center will be located in southeast Dane County. In addition to the 300 MW of solar power, the project will feature a 165 MW battery storage component to help bolster grid reliability. WEC Energy Group and Madison Gas and Electric intend to buy the plant for $649 million.
“This project accelerates the state’s and the region’s transition to clean energy,” said Heather Allen, Executive Director at RENEW Wisconsin. “With enough capacity to provide one-fourth of the local solar needed to meet Dane County’s Climate Action Plan, Koshkonong’s approval is a major milestone in the transition to energy independence for the region.”
When energized, the project will generate $1.2 million per year in new revenue for local governments, in addition to lease payments to local landowners. Construction is expected to begin later this year and will likely become operational in 2025.
“The energy storage component of the project will provide up to 660 megawatt-hours of energy storage per day, or approximately the equivalent battery storage capacity of 6,000 electric vehicles,” Allen added. “Battery energy storage adds more flexibility to the project, allowing for energy use when it is needed most.”
Koshkonong is the fourth solar generation project proposed by Invenergy to receive construction approval from Wisconsin regulators and the third to be combined with an energy storage component. The four solar projects developed by Invenergy—Badger Hollow, Paris, Darien, and now Koshkonong—will comprise 1,050 MW of generating capacity when completed. The energy storage facility at Koshkonong will be the largest of its kind in Wisconsin.
In a separate proceeding, WEC Energy Group and Madison Gas and Electric seek permission to add the Koshkonong Solar Energy Center to their growing portfolio of renewable generating plants. The PSC will likely rule on this application before the end of this year.
In the technical hearing leading up to the PSC’s decision, RENEW provided expert testimony documenting the public benefits to be delivered by the Koshkonong solar and storage project. These benefits include:
- Displacing fossil generation with a zero-carbon source of electricity over its 30-year+ lifetime;
- Providing firm capacity at a Dane County location for replacing the 1,100 MW Columbia coal-fired power plant scheduled for retirement in 2024; and
- Supporting Wisconsin’s farm economy through lease payments to participating landowners and new revenues to local governments hosting the project.
Wisconsin currently has over 510 MW of completed utility-scale solar projects with nearly 2000 MW more approved. This upward trajectory of utility-scale solar projects will help Wisconsin meet its 100% carbon-free goals.
by Heather Allen | Mar 25, 2022 | Advocacy, PSC Priorities, Solar
RENEW Wisconsin, together with a coalition of Clean Energy Advocates (Clean Wisconsin, Environmental Law, and Policy Center, Vote Solar, The Nature Conservancy, Wisconsin Conservation Voters, and the Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action), submitted comments this week to the Public Service Commission in favor of protecting and improving net metering in Wisconsin.
The Commission asked for remarks on four key questions and shared a 60-page memo from the Regulatory Assistance Project describing net metering policy issues, changes to net metering in other states, and several other aspects for consideration. The comment period closed on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.
Wisconsin’s customer-owned solar market is falling behind our neighboring states due to a patchwork of service terms and artificial market barriers. Our coalition comments highlighted several key factors contributing to the issue:
- The absence of a statewide net energy billing policy has fostered an inconsistent and confusing patchwork of tariffs across Wisconsin.
2. Low net energy billing ceilings and low export rates effectively exclude many larger customers from investing in solar systems.
3. Encroachment of utility-owned DG reduces behind-the-meter installation opportunities for customers and solar contractors.
4. The lack of clarity over third-party financing hampers the solar marketplace.
Solar installers, solar customers, clean energy advocates, and climate activists submitted comments echoing these themes. Here are some quotes from the commenters:
“The time has come for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (WiPSC) to take a customer-centric approach to address the need for dramatic greenhouse gas emission reductions.”
Kerry Beheler and Gary Radloff
“Larger commercial and industrial customers should be allowed to net meter on larger projects that help them displace a greater percentage of their usage with on-site renewable generation. Adjacent states have raised net meter limits above 1000 kW for these customers. State goals of increased renewable energy are efficiently met with an on-site generation that is offsetting load, and this also possibly reduces the need for additional transmission infrastructure. Net metering is one good tool encouraging on-site renewable generation.”
“I support a robust net metering policy for Wisconsin. The adaptation of solar power is critical for our energy independence and to mitigate the impact of climate change.”
RENEW and its allies explained their priority to improve net metering in the near term to “make net billing tariffs more consistent across Wisconsin utilities.” But we also urged caution that no other reform that could diminish customers’ value proposition for investing in these grid-beneficial technologies should be pursued before reaching much higher solar penetration levels and analyzing the impact of such potential changes.
Net metering is a valuable tool that helps customers generate their energy in a manner that provides both system and public benefits, including carbon emission reduction and economic development. It drives solar deployment and is easily understood and accessible to customers. RENEW will continue to participate in this conversation at the Commission and share results as this process moves forward. Wisconsin can improve customer transparency with a more uniform statewide approach but should be very cautious about risking the benefits of distributed generation by altering rate design.