In June, the Public Service Commission requested public comments on the latest iteration of its Strategic Energy Assessment (SEA), a study that profiles the state’s electric power industry and surveys how the economic and regulatory landscape will likely evolve over the next six years. The PSC is required by law to update its assessment every two years. The PSC gave the public until August 14th to file comments to the draft study.
In contrast to previous renditions of this process, which were quiet affairs, this year’s draft assessment (Docket 5-ES-110) elicited a veritable torrent of comments from the public. This unprecedented volume of responses reflects a broadening understanding that electric providers are making significant changes to their resource mix to reduce carbon emissions, and that this clean energy transition must continue. With the PSC approving a significant quantity of zero-emission generation in other proceedings, it is heartening to see so many individuals and organizations encouraging the PSC to do more of the same.
Unfortunately, the draft SEA shies away from acknowledging the market realities and environmental constraints that are, today, driving utility procurement decisions quite clearly toward clean energy. This did not go unnoticed. As RENEW noted in its comments, the draft SEA is distinguished more by what is absent from the discussion than by the contents within it.
Chief among the blind spots is the document’s complete silence on climate science and the Governor’s Executive Orders #38 and #52, which enumerated a number of initiatives and goals to put the state on a zero-carbon pathway. Issued in August 2019, Executive Order #38 created a new office within state government, the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy (OSCE). Over the last nine months, OSCE has been working closely with the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, assisting this body in formulating strategies for tackling the effects of climate change in Wisconsin.
OSCE director Maria Redmond submitted comments consisting of recommendations for improving the usefulness and educational value of the SEA.
While reporting on what the utility providers are doing, the PSCW should capitalize on the opportunity to integrate several multi-sector, local, state, and regional efforts to reduce energy consumption, transition to clean energy. The SEA compliments the work of the OSCE and could be a useful tool to measure and verify progress towards meeting our carbon reduction goals. The SEA could also be used to directly address and report on Wisconsin’s progress on reducing the impacts of climate change. As currently written, the assessment does not analyze the overall risks (business as usual) versus the benefits of the transition to a clean energy economy or addressing climate change.
RENEW struck a similar theme in its concluding remarks.
We encourage Commission staff to engage the newly created Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy in a productive way, and find other sources of information beyond the utility responses to data requests. Certainly, RENEW would, if asked, gladly assist Commission staff in the gathering of relevant information prior to the document-drafting process. As noted in the introduction, the Strategic Energy Assessment is the closest thing in the state to a public planning process involving the state’s electric providers. It’s crucially important that this and future iterations of the SEA weave in policy threads that will illuminate pathways to achieving the clean energy goals and objectives that numerous public and private entities in Wisconsin have adopted.
The breadth and volume of comments submitted to the PSC is directly attributable to RENEW’s work to engage stakeholders and the public on the current SEA, highlighted by a webinar organized and led by RENEW policy director Michael Vickerman. The webinar on July 14 presented a primer on the draft SEA, and provided suggested points that could be raised in comments. More than 50 individuals representing numerous organizations in Wisconsin and beyond registered for the webinar. The slide deck prepared for the webinar can be found here.
In 2018, a mere two weeks elapsed between the comment filing deadline and the issuance of the final SEA. This time around, we expect more significant re-writes and additions to the draft.
RENEW thanks the organizations and individuals who weighed in with comments. We are hopeful that the public response to the draft SEA will materialize into needed improvements in the final document.
In the first-ever test of the appeal process set forth in Wisconsin’s Wind Siting Rule (PSC 128), the Public Service Commission (PSC) reviewed and upheld Green County’s approval last fall of a 24-turbine, 65-megawatt (MW) wind project slated for development there. Following the county’s original decision, local wind farm opponents petitioned the PSC to invalidate the project’s permit, contending that the developer’s application was incomplete.
On June 11, the PSC denied the petition on a 3-0 vote, and in so doing removed the last remaining legal obstacle from the project’s path. As it stands today, the Sugar River wind farm is fully compliant with the standards set forth in the statewide rule relating to public health and safety, and may now proceed to construction.
Advanced by EDF Renewables, a nationally prominent renewable energy producer, Sugar River is capable of generating enough electricity to equal the consumption of 20,000 Wisconsin households. When operational, Sugar River will also yield about $260,000 in annual revenues, with nearly $152,000 going to Green County and more than $108,000 to the Town of Jefferson. Before ground can be broken, however, EDF will need to either sign a power purchase agreement with an off-taker or agree to sell the wind farm to an electric provider when construction is complete.
Sugar River was one of the first two wind energy proposals in 2019 to go through the local government review process specified in PSC 128. The other proposed wind farm, the 99 MW Red Barn project in Grant County, secured a conditional use permit in July 2019. No appeal of Grant County’s decision was filed. Like Sugar River, Red Barn is expecting to begin operation in the second half of 2021, assuming a partnership has been forged with an electric provider.
Sugar River provided the first significant test of PSC 128 after the rule narrowly survived a repeal vote during the 2011-2012 legislative session. The rule establishes a mechanism whereby a citizen group or a development company may challenge a local government decision on a proposed wind farm. Under this appeal process, the PSC’s role is to ascertain whether the local government adhered to all the standards and procedures in rendering a decision on a wind farm proposal.
In the case of Sugar River, the PSC agreed to take up the appeal filed by No Green County Wind in October 2019. Before rendering its decision, the PSC invited interested parties to submit comments on the matter. In its comments, RENEW expressed its support for the Sugar River project, as well as the regulatory framework that allowed the project to be given a fair hearing at every step of its permitting journey. The PSC plans to issue a written decision in July.
The approvals of Sugar River and Red Barn signal the end of a protracted lull in wind development activity lasting from 2011 to 2017. Between an adverse political environment and a glut of generating capacity, wind energy development stalled in Wisconsin. During the dry spell here, developers flocked to greener pastures in neighboring states. The door reopened slightly when Dairyland Power Cooperative agreed to purchase electricity generated from Quilt Block Wind Farm, which started operating in November 2017.
Though local opposition to wind development remains very much alive today, the experience with Sugar River attests to the strength and durability of Wisconsin’s Wind Siting Rule, which foretokens brighter days for the wind power industry here.
To learn more about the Sugar River Wind Farm, visit these previous blog posts.
PSC affirms local approval of Sugar River Wind Farm
Local Residents Discuss Wind Energy in Wisconsin
A Scientific Look into Wind Power and Human Health
The Public Service Commission this week signed off on the newest solar farm slated for construction this year in Dane County. This solar power plant will cover 58 acres at the northern end of Dane County Regional Airport, and will involve more than 31,000 panels mounted on single-axis tracking systems. Madison Gas & Electric (MGE) will own and operate the solar plant, and expects to complete construction in the fourth quarter of 2020.
MGE’s solar field is noteworthy in that it will produce clean electricity for only one customer: Dane County. This will be the first example in Wisconsin of an offsite solar project dedicated to a single customer, albeit one with multiple facilities in MGE territory.
Through a long-term contract with MGE, Dane County will purchase the project’s output to offset its own purchases of grid-supplied electricity over the course of the facility’s 30-year-plus life. At nine megawatts (MW), the facility should produce on average 18 million kilowatt-hours a year. All told, the solar farm’s output should equate to about 40% of the electricity consumed at county-owned facilities served by MGE.
The PSC decision contained two separate approvals. First, the agency approved the power purchase agreement between MGE and Dane County, which is provided through the utility’s Renewable Energy Rider service. Under the contract, Dane County will pay 5.8 cents/kWh for electricity generated in the first year of operation, which will result in immediate savings. That price will escalate 2% per year over the contract’s term, which should track closely with anticipated increases in utility energy costs. After 30 years, Dane County will have paid off MGE’s entire investment.
The PSC also authorized the expenditure of $16 million to permit, build, and operate the solar field at the airport. The installed cost of the project equates to $1.78/watt, in line with other, smaller utility-owned projects such as MGE’s 5 MW facility now under construction at Middleton’s Morey Field.
Dane County is the third MGE customer to take service from an offsite solar array built under the Renewable Energy Rider service, following in the footsteps of the City of Middleton and the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School district. Those two customers have committed to purchase the output from a combined 1.5 MW share of the Morey Field solar array, which should commence operations in June 2020.
Notwithstanding its voluntary nature, MGE’s Renewable Energy Rider program has proven to be an attractive option for local governments that have adopted aggressive clean energy goals but are limited in their capacity to host solar systems on all their facilities. Later this year, MGE will file an application to build a 7 MW solar farm to serve the City of Madison and the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). As with Dane County, MGE is the electric provider for many facilities owned by the City and MMSD. The solar array will be located near the Dane County Landfill in southeast Madison.