After simmering on the proverbial back burner for nearly two years, the third-party financing issue relating to customer-sited solar power has been thrust back into the public spotlight as pressure builds to resolve the legal questions surrounding it.
The reemergence of this issue can be traced to two parallel developments. The first is a Public Service Commission (PSC) proceeding moving toward a ruling settling the legality of third-party-owned solar systems serving individual retail customers. The second is a lawsuit recently filed by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association in Portage County Circuit Court, challenging the PSC’s authority to regulate the financing of behind-the-meter systems that serve host customers only.
The PSC proceeding began in March 2019 when Eagle Point Solar, a Dubuque-based solar contractor, filed a complaint against We Energies for blocking the installation of rooftop arrays serving the City of Milwaukee. In its complaint, Eagle Point contends that PSC Chapter 119, which regulates the interaction between small-scale electricity producers and the utility grid, does not give We Energies the right to deny interconnection to a customer based on how the generating equipment is financed. According to We Energies, however, a third party owner of the equipment that supplies electricity to one customer under contract should be regulated as a public utility.
Following an extended period of legal maneuvering, the PSC set in motion a process for investigating Eagle Point’s complaint (Docket 9300-DR-104). In so doing, it expanded the scope of the proceeding to consider the public utility question that led to the interconnection denial. When the parties finished entering evidence into the hearing record, the PSC opened a public comment window on the proceeding, which ended on February 23rd.
Supporters of third-party financing sprang into action, led by RENEW. To illustrate the breadth and depth of support for opening up the solar market in this fashion, RENEW circulated an action alert encouraging those who care about this issue to submit comments supporting Eagle Point’s position. Networks such as Wisconsin Climate Table, Wisconsin Health Practitioners for Climate Action, and our own solar contractor e-mail list helped circulate RENEW’s alert beyond our own activist base. At the same time, organizations such as 350 Madison and Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) asked their activists and members to post comments on the PSC website.
As a result of our combined efforts, a total of 336 individuals and organizations weighed with their views on the Eagle Point matter. Of that, 327 comments expressed support for opening the market to allow third-party ownership of solar electric systems in Wisconsin. In that overwhelming display of support, several themes prevailed, including the following:
Third-party financing is already expressly authorized in 28 states;
Allowing third-party-owned solar systems is consistent with Wisconsin case law;
The threat of being regulated as a public utility discourages businesses from providing solar power generated onsite to retail customers through leases and sale agreements;
Third-party financing would make solar power affordable to low-to-moderate income households and nonprofit entities such as schools;
Expanding solar financing options would help communities reduce their reliance on harmful fossil energy sources; and
Expanding solar financing options would invigorate local economies.
These arguments track closely to those articulated by Wisconsin solar contractors and consultants in a March 2019 filing urging the Commission to approve Eagle Point’s petition. Similar to our efforts during the comment period, RENEW shaped the themes in that statement and pulled together a coalition of market actors to demonstrate support for third-party financed solar energy. In the intervening two years, Eagle Point Solar and the City of Milwaukee labored to amass a set of facts and legal arguments to support a finding that WEPCO’s action was unlawful.
The merits of this case are clear-cut, as are the regulatory remedies. Other states that regulate electric utilities have taken steps to affirm the legality of third-party-financed solar, most notably Iowa, which did so in 2014, the result of a long and expensive legal fight waged by Eagle Point. In contrast to Iowa, the State of Wisconsin has allowed this issue to languish for many years without resolution.
In a brief representing RENEW and other solar advocates, we urged the PSC to take the following actions:
Order WEPCO to interconnect the City of Milwaukee solar projects, regardless of how those projects are financed;
Clarify that a utility may not deny interconnection based on project ownership, and
Clarify that third-party owners of customer-sited distributed generation are not “public utilities” under Wisconsin law.
RENEW would like to thank Eagle Point Solar and the City of Milwaukee for leading this crucially important regulatory battle, ELPC for drafting a particularly persuasive legal brief on behalf of clean energy advocates, and the 327 commenters who affirmed their desire for an expanded solar marketplace free of utility interference.
Wisconsin’s distributed generation (DG) renewable energy market lags behind comparable states. As seen in other states, DG helps diverse groups of individuals and organizations, including businesses, residents, renewable energy customers, and future renewable energy customers, gain access to renewable energy and create a more fair and navigable market.
Whether it takes the form of behind-the-meter generators powering individual customers or larger projects feeding power directly into the distribution grid, DG is a vitally important segment of the renewable energy landscape. Customer investments drive these installations with benefits extending to Wisconsin businesses, residences, governments, nonprofits, and their communities. DG clean energy investments help spur local economic investment, support clean energy jobs, and save Wisconsin money that otherwise would have been spent on importing fossil fuels.
It has long been RENEW’s view that a more fair, clear, and consistent regulatory environment could strengthen the DG market and accelerate the transition to renewable energy in Wisconsin.
In June 2020 the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) convened an investigative docket” (5-EI-157) to identify regulatory barriers that effectively put a tight lid on Wisconsin’s DG market, especially customer-sited DG.
This investigation is structured to encourage input and recommendations from organizations and entities that support small-scale DG. RENEW has assembled an expert legal and technical team for this docket—Tim Lindl and Melissa Birchard of Keyes and Fox, and Justin Barnes of EQ Research. We invite you to review the legal and policy analysis we provided to the PSC in August 2020 and in January 2021. A coalition of organizations (Clean Energy Advocates) joined our comments to the PSC, demonstrating broad support for an improved DG market. This ongoing investigation is the best opportunity we’ve had in more than 10 years to advance renewably powered DG before the PSC.
The success of this campaign will strengthen and expand the renewable DG market in Wisconsin. If you support this work, please consider a donation to RENEW today. Together we can champion renewable energy growth in Wisconsin and we are poised to make significant progress in 2021. Join us today!
Wisconsin has fewer net metering customers than comparable states
Net metering customers represent an important segment of the renewable energy market, however, Wisconsin is falling behind. In the last four years, net metered customers in Wisconsin have grown by only 0.11%, well below the increases seen elsewhere in other states since 2015.
Fair and clear distributed generation policies would grow the renewable energy market in Wisconsin
RENEW Wisconsin aims to enlarge the market share for non-utility-owned renewable DG, including both self-supply and grid-supply projects. In furtherance of that goal, we’ve developed a number of principles that should inform decisions rendered in the DG docket. These include:
Ensuring developer access to standard offer contracts that have terms for reasonable compensation.
Giving developers insight into system and utility resource needs to help them target their planned investments.
Provide larger energy users with better and less restrictive opportunities for larger self-supply resources.
Standardize and improve net metering rates for all customers across Investor-owned Utilities (IOUs).
In addition to behind-the-meter systems, RENEW has also set forth a path for front-of-meter renewable generation projects up to 20MW. These types of projects should be eligible for 20-year standard offer contracts that are pegged to the same methodologies that utilities use when assigning value to their own generation projects. Leveling the playing field for compensating solar is essential to increasing customer investment opportunities, and expanding the solar workforce.
RENEW is optimistic that by the end of the docket the PSC will land on several beneficial policy changes for promoting renewable DG. These policy changes could be taken up later this year through the anticipated utility rate case filings. Should events unfold along these lines, solar developers and customers stand ready to benefit from a more fair, clear, and consistent renewable energy market.
Join RENEW’s campaign to advance renewable distributed generation in Wisconsin
Since 1991, RENEW has been the state’s preeminent advocate for renewable energy. At the macro scale, solar and wind can outcompete fossil fuels on cost and environmental performance. For the first time in more than a decade, we have an opportunity in Wisconsin to broaden the clean energy transition underway to benefit all customers who place a value in a healthy energy economy. A clear, fair and forward-looking regulatory environment will be crucial to spreading renewable energy across all sectors of society. RENEW is bringing together the leadership and expertise necessary to undo the regulatory barriers that have held renewable DG back, and to replace them with policies to make renewable DG more accessible, affordable, and plentiful across Wisconsin. We hope you will join us in this work by donating today. 2021 promises to be an exciting year!
 RENEW evaluated eight states closest to Wisconsin in terms of cumulative Net Energy Metering (NEM) capacity at the end of 2015, i.e., the four states immediately above and below Wisconsin in EIA data listing NEM capacity by state. The eight states closest to WI in NEM capacity in 2015 included NH, RI, ME, NC, VA, IL, MN, and MI. The 2020 data is based on NEM capacity through April 2020. The percentage of total customers uses 2018 total state customer counts for both calculations. Note that Wisconsin has fallen behind states it had previously led. See bar graph for more information.
 In the most recent comments filed by Clean Energy Advocates, we looked at this year’s PSC calendar to assess how our recommended actions can make their way into regulatory policy. The DG docket now underway is well-timed in that we expect every Class A investor-owned utility in Wisconsin to file for new rates in 2021.
As part of its tenth annual Renewable Energy Summit, RENEW Wisconsin will recognize individuals and organizations who have made significant and lasting advances in renewable energy development here in Wisconsin.
Titled “Building the Clean Energy Mosaic,” this year’s Summit will be hosted virtually over three days from Tuesday, January 12th through Thursday, January 14th, 2021. The theme of this year’s event, “Building the Clean Energy Mosaic,” will highlight the diversity of technologies, people, and scale needed to shape our clean energy future.
Roster of 2020 awardees
Renewable Energy Business of the Year
Northwind Solar Cooperative, Amherst
Renewable Energy Catalysts of the Year:
Sid Sczygelski & Ali Wolf, Aspirus Health, Wausau
Charles Hua, Madison
Renewable Energy Champion of the Year
Oregon School District
Renewable Energy Pioneer of the Year
Renewable Energy Project of the Year
Two Creeks Solar Park, Manitowoc County
NextEra Energy Resources (developer)
Wisconsin Public Service Corp. (joint owner)
Madison Gas and Electric (joint owner)
Renewable Energy Business of the Year
NorthwindSolar Cooperative has been a fixture in Central Wisconsin’s renewable energy marketplace since 2007, operating principally in the residential and small commercial segments. Throughout its history, Northwind has been acutely conscious of the value of community ties. Northwind’s PV systems are a common sight in Amherst. The company has operated the Grow Solar – Central Wisconsin group purchase program for four straight years, designing and installing more than a megawatt of solar capacity for 168 residential customers. After the company reorganized itself as a worker-owned cooperative structure, Northwind committed to building a new headquarters building in Amherst Business Park that showcases its talents and services. With 44 kW of PV capacity and multiple battery configurations, Northwind’s new headquarters building invites prospective customers to pursue solar + storage as the energy package of the future.
Renewable Energy Catalysts of the Year
Aspirus Health is a health care organization serving much of central and northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with 10 hospitals, 50+ clinics, labs and other service-providing facilities within its system. In 2018 Aspirus launched a systemwide initiative to identify and implement strategies for slashing its energy overhead and scaling back its carbon footprint. Sid Sczygelski, chief financial officer of Aspirus, chairs this initiative, while Sustainability Director Ali Wolf directs and coordinates this ambitious undertaking. Their goal is to reduce carbon emissions systemwide 80% by 2030. Going into 2021, Sczygelski, Wolf and the Aspirus sustainability team have made great progress to date. Aspirus has integrated into its buildings more than 900 kilowatts of solar PV on its rooftops, saving more than $600,000/year in energy expenses. In 2021, Aspirus plans to double its use of solar energy systemwide and complete construction on its most energy-efficient facility yet, a clinic in Wausau.
In 2017, students and staff at Madison West High School started work on a campaign to power their school with a rooftop solar PV system. That year, Charles Hua, then a junior, took the helm of West Green Club and launched a fundraising and outreach campaign that blossomed into one of the largest youth-led sustainability efforts in Wisconsin. From June 2017 through 2019, the West Green Club raised nearly $90,000 from staff, students, parents and local foundations, accounting for nearly 50% of the cost of their 128 kW solar PV system. Installed last summer by Westphal Electric, Madison West’s solar system is now the largest array supplying electricity to a Madison Metropolitan School District building. The example set by Hua and West Green Club helped inspire the school district to adopt a 100% renewable goal for all of its facilities. Hua is now a junior at Harvard University.
Renewable Energy Champion of the Year
Long a leader in pursuing solar power for its operations, Oregon School District took advantage of an opportunity in 2018 to push the envelope on sustainability at its new Forest Edge Elementary School in Fitchburg. Collaborating with HGA’s Madison office, an architectural and engineering design firm, the school district financed and saw to completion the first net zero energy public school in Wisconsin. Equipped with a 646 kW rooftop solar array, a ground-source heat pump system and onsite battery storage, Forest Edge is an all-electric building. There is no gas connection to the school. Completed in the fall of 2020, Forest Edge represents a quantum leap in capturing, controlling and maximizing the economic value of sunshine and ground temperatures to heat, cool and power a building where many people congregate.
Renewable Energy Pioneer of the Year
Impatient with federal and state government inaction on climate change, Dane County decided to roll up it sleeves and get to work, starting in 2017 with the creation of the Office of Climate Change and Energy. The County’s approach to reducing fossil fuel use has been aggressive and remarkably systematic for a local government. A number of these actions bore fruit in 2020. These include:
Throwing the switch on a biogas processing plant in April that converts gas from landfill waste and cow manure into a pipeline-grade renewable fuel;
Releasing a Climate Action Plan, also in April, containing recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions countywide 45% by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050;
Partnering with Madison Gas and Electric to host a 9-megawatt solar array on airport property and purchase the output from that project, under a long-term contract; and
Purchasing property in the Town of Cottage Grove to host a larger solar array that will enable the County to offset all of its electricity usage with zero-emission power.
Renewable Energy Project of the Year
Developed by Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources in Manitowoc County, the 150-megawatt Two Creeks Solar Park was energized last November. It is now the largest power plant in the state of Wisconsin that is fueled by the sun. Jointly owned by Wisconsin Public Service and Madison Gas and Electric, Two Creeks effectively doubled solar generation capacity in Wisconsin, and its output will equal the electrical consumption of 33,000 residential households. Two Creeks was the first solar power plant to receive approval from the Public Service Commission, and the first to be approved as a utility-owned asset. Seeing Two Creeks to completion opens the door to a new chapter in electric power, one highlighted by the emergence of solar power as the cleanest, more affordable and least risky supply option available to Wisconsin electric providers.
This year’s summit program will also draw attention to other milestones and notable achievements in 2020, including the following:
The Public Service Commission approved two large solar farms—Badger State Solar and Paris Solar—that will add 349 MW of solar power to Wisconsin’s electric generation portfolio;
Madison Gas and Electric completed two smaller solar farms in its service territory, with a combined capacity of 14 MW, to supply several customers under contract and expand its shared solar program;
Grants from RENEW’s Solar for Good program resulted in 27 new solar installations across the state totaling 1,265 kW of operating capacity.
Two Eau Claire high schools—Memorial and North—celebrated the completion of their 126 kW solar arrays supported by Solar on Schools, a joint venture between the Couillard Solar Foundation and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.
Eagle Point Solar installed 400 kW(AC) of PV capacity, serving four City of La Crosse-owned buildings.
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.
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.
RENEW Wisconsin has named Heather Allen as Executive Director. Ms. Allen was hired as RENEW’s Program Director in July 2018 and has been acting as Interim Executive Director since March, when RENEW’s prior Executive Director, Tyler Huebner, was appointed by Governor Tony Evers to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.
Prior to joining RENEW Wisconsin, Ms. Allen worked as the Legislative Analyst for the City of Madison’s Common Council. She brings to RENEW a cumulative 15 years of experience developing policies and programs at the Clean Lakes Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the City of Madison.
“With Heather at the helm, RENEW is well-positioned to steer Wisconsin’s clean energy transition on a path towards a broader distribution of its benefits,” said Michael Vickerman, Policy Director at RENEW Wisconsin. “As state and local governments, schools, businesses, farmers, tribes, affinity groups, and individuals become more invested in clean energy, RENEW will be working with them to realize a future in which renewable energy is available and accessible for anyone who desires it.”
“Heather is an ally for solar installers and customers across Wisconsin,” Burke O’Neal at Full Spectrum Solar added. “She is dedicated to improving access to renewable energy for homeowners, businesses, local governments and nonprofit organizations.”
“I’m thrilled to congratulate Heather Allen on becoming Executive Director of RENEW Wisconsin,” said Deb Erwin, Manager, Regulatory Policy, Xcel Energy. “As a national leader in the clean energy transition, Xcel Energy knows the importance of working together with partners to make our vision a reality. We look forward to working with Heather to bring all the benefits of the clean energy transition to Wisconsin.”
Eric Udelhofen, RENEW Wisconsin Board of Directors Chair and Project Developer at OneEnergy Renewables, a RENEW business member added, “The RENEW Board is thrilled that Heather Allen has accepted the offer to become our new Executive Director, and is very excited to continue working together with Heather to advance RENEW’s mission of advancing renewable energy in Wisconsin. Heather is a fierce advocate for our issues and will be able to step in and be an effective advocate and leader from day one.”
Ms. Allen said, “As we look ahead to the next five years, there is so much opportunity for clean energy. Price drops in wind and solar and public interest in generating clean emission-free electricity have paved the way for growth and innovation in new technologies. Electric vehicles, batteries, and demand response solutions are reshaping the energy landscape to allow for a more responsive, sustainable, and affordable grid.”
“We are committed to increasing equitable access to the benefits of renewable energy so that all Wisconsinites have a clear stake in our energy system. I envision a future in which Wisconsin becomes a renewable energy leader and a model for other states.” She added,“This is the moment to seize the opportunity to shift towards renewable energy, keep billions of dollars in Wisconsin, and reinvest in our local economies.”
Ms. Allen is the producer and host of Wisconsin Energy Broadcast (WEB) on WORT 89.9 FM, a monthly broadcast, where she discusses clean technology and renewable energy in the Midwest.
Ms. Allen received a Bachelor of Science in Biological Aspects of Conservation and International Relations from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and Master of Arts in International Environmental Policy from Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Other advocates and industry professionals also expressed their congratulations on Ms. Allen’s appointment:
It is always a pleasure to work with Heather. Her gift is being able to draw in people with many different perspectives and experiences. She continues to expand the coalition of allies who can advocate effectively for clean energy in Wisconsin.
Jennifer Giegerich, Government Affairs Director, Wisconsin Conservation Voters
Heather Allen’s understanding of the multifaceted challenge of climate change mitigation clearly drives her dedication to achieve climate justice. As a physician advocating for the health of my patients via equitable climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions, I have found Heather’s expert understanding of large-scale renewable infrastructure development to be invaluable. Heather has also always been a pleasure to work with, demonstrating unparalleled passion, prompt and professional communication and collaboration skills, and an enduring work ethic. I am thrilled to hear of her permanent appointment as Executive Director of RENEW Wisconsin.
Andrew Lewandowski, Pediatrician, GHC-SCW, Steering Committee Member, Wisconsin Environmental Health Network
Heather has been a delight to work with as Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light has collaborated with RENEW through her to bring a message of Good News to people of faith who care about sustainable energy.
John Helt, Former Board President, WI IP&L
I’ve been fortunate to work with Heather Allen for more than four years now and I know that she’ll be an outstanding Executive Director for RENEW. Heather is smart, diligent, responsible, hardworking, a great communicator, and has so much integrity! Congrats to RENEW on a great hire and a bright future.
Keith Reopelle, Former Director of Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change
Excellent choice, Renew Wisconsin continues Forward in very capable dedicated hands! Congratulations Heather!
Bob Bishop, Farmer
The New England Ratepayers Association (“NERA”) had petitioned the FERC to take control over net metering policy for the entire country. If the petition were granted, states would have lost the ability to set policy on solar electricity generated by utility customers. The challenge to state control of net metering, the policy that enables energy producers to get bill credit for the extra energy they push back on to the grid, threatened the solar investments of thousands of families and businesses in Wisconsin.
RENEW joined dozens of other clean energy advocacy organizations in a petition to dismiss the issue and encouraged Wisconsin’s political leadership to get involved. Many elected officials from around the country joined in the fight to protect net metering including Wisconsin’s own, Attorney General Josh Kaul.