A 28-turbine wind power project in Grant County will soon become a utility-owned source of clean electricity, thanks to a Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSCW) approval.
With this approval in hand, construction of the Red Barn Wind Energy Center should commence this spring and proceed quickly to completion before the year’s end. Once Red Barn’s 28 turbines begin generating power, Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service Corporation (WPS) and Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) will assume ownership of the project. WPS’s project share will be 90%, while MGE will own the remaining 10%.
With a generating capacity of 91.6 megawatts (MW), Red Barn is expected to produce approximately 300,000 megawatt-hours annually. That quantity of clean electricity will rival the annual output from Badger Hollow 1, a 150 MW solar farm located 10 miles east in neighboring Iowa County. WPS and MGE also co-own Badger Hollow 1, which began operating in December 2021.
“The evidence presented by both utilities and project supporters was powerful and unambiguous. Red Barn will be an economically attractive source of zero-fuel cost, zero-emission electricity that will produce savings for Wisconsin ratepayers and reduce power plant emissions, including greenhouse gases for years to come,” said RENEW Wisconsin Policy Director Michael Vickerman.
Red Barn’s original developer, Minnesota-based Project Resources Corporation (PRC), secured a conditional use permit from Grant County in July 2019. The siting permit granted to Red Barn was the first issued by a local government in this state since the Wind Siting Rule (PSC 128) took effect in 2012.
PRC subsequently sold the rights to develop Red Barn to ALLETE Clean Energy, another Minnesota-based energy company, which will build the wind farm before transferring it to WPS and MGE for an estimated $162 million.
Vickerman added: “RENEW commends Project Resources Corporation for blazing the trail here, working with willing landowners as well as accommodating neighbors and local officials to assemble and shepherd a wind power project from conception to siting approval, sparking no discernible opposition in the process.”
Red Barn will also be the first Wisconsin-based wind energy power plant to be added to the generation portfolio of any Wisconsin investor-owned utility since We Energies’ 162 MW Glacier Hills project started producing power in late 2011. Since then, only one utility-scale wind farm, the 99 MW Quilt Block project in Lafayette County, has come online. Quilt Block has been generating power for sale to Dairyland Power Cooperative since 2017.
Throughout Red Barn’s operating life, Grant County and the Towns of Wingville and Clifton will receive a combined $368,000 in utility local aids each year.
In 2020, wind projects located in Wisconsin accounted for 2.4% of the state’s electricity supply, according to the PSCW.
Today, Senator Rob Cowles (R – Green Bay) and Representative Rachael Cabral-Guevara (R – Appleton) introduced legislation that would clarify using a lease, sometimes known as third-party financing, to acquire a solar array is legal in Wisconsin. RENEW Wisconsin and the members of the Wisconsin Solar Coalition applaud the introduction of this legislation and urge other legislators to support it.
“This legislation will expand access to solar energy in Wisconsin by allowing businesses and homeowners a basic financing option available in other states. Decades of Wisconsin case law and statutes allow for solar leasing or third-party financing,” said RENEW Wisconsin Executive Director Heather Allen. “However, over the past several years, some utilities have challenged solar installations with third-party financing structures. Since the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin and courts have avoided clarifying the law, it is up to the legislature. Without clarity, Wisconsinites lack access to all of the financing options they need to meet their clean energy goals, create jobs, and manage energy bills while improving the resiliency of the electric grid. Wisconsin must affirm the legality of third-party financing to facilitate the shift to clean energy for everyone.”
Across the country, leasing equipment is one of the most often used financing methods for distributed solar. This legislation is an opportunity to provide greater access to affordable, emission-free electricity for all Wisconsinites. Clarifying this law will positively impact many individuals, businesses, and organizations.
“As a building design consultant serving health care and educational clients, I see a tremendous appetite to utilize third-party financing to develop renewable energy projects, microgrids, and heat and power installations to drive down operational costs and increase resiliency, said Mike Barnett at HGA Architects and Engineers. He added, “Unfortunately, in Wisconsin, there is no legal clarity surrounding third-party financing. If the legislature clarified the legality of third-party financing, these types of capital investment projects and associated jobs would dramatically increase.”
Niels Wolter of Madison Solar Consulting said, “I have many not-for-profit and public (i.e., governmental) clients doing amazing work. They would love to do solar projects but don’t qualify for tax incentives. Third-party financing would be an amazing solution for them to generate solar power, reduce their operating costs and teach their communities about renewables.”
Allen added, “This is a simple question of giving individuals, businesses, and organizations the solar financing options that work best for them.”
In a stunning policy reversal, Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) submitted a proposal to lower monthly charges and raise energy rates for its residential electric customers. Filed on September 3rd, MGE’s rate application is strongly backed by customer groups and clean energy organizations, including RENEW Wisconsin.
MGE’s filing is the product of negotiations over the summer with RENEW and other parties intervening in the case. If approved as is by the Public Service Commission (PSC), the agreement will pare the fixed charge for residential electric service from $19 per month today to $17 per month in 2022 and $15 per month in 2023. At the same time, energy rates will rise to offset the proposed reduction in the fixed charge.
The monthly fixed charge is the minimum amount assessed on residential customers for electric service. These charges do not vary with energy consumption levels. Hiking fixed charges invariably depresses the volumetric rate assessed to energy consumption, penalizing customers who use relatively little electricity and those who supply themselves with solar power produced onsite. Alternatively, lowering fixed charges and raising energy rates should achieve the opposite result by sending a stronger price signal to incentivize customer investments in energy efficiency and onsite solar.
“Low-income customers, solar customers, and customers who have invested in energy efficiency to reduce energy bills will benefit from this shift,” said Heather Allen, Executive Director for RENEW Wisconsin. “Overall, MGE customers will benefit because reduced energy demand helps limit the need for additional generation capacity. This is a win-win.”
The settlement avoids a contested case hearing in which Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and RENEW had been planning to submit testimony demonstrating that the $19 per month charge was excessive, especially in an urban service territory where the majority of electric customers are renters living in multifamily dwellings.
The MGE settlement follows a similar one struck with Xcel’s Wisconsin utility several months ago. Under the terms of that settlement agreement, which RENEW, CUB and other organizations signed onto, Xcel agreed to lower its fixed charge for residential electric service from $17 per month to $16 per month in 2022 and $15 per month in 2023. As with MGE, Xcel’s energy rates will also increase.
Other positive outcomes of the settlement include MGE’s support for a low-income thermostat pilot program, exploration of further innovative ways to help low-income customers achieve lower energy bills, and MGE’s increased support for smart thermostats and technologies, such as controlled water heaters, heat pumps, and battery electric storage in future filings.
The PSC is now accepting public comments on the MGE rate case. If you’d like to support the settlement agreement, please communicate your thoughts to the PSC via this public comment webpage specific to this case. For more information on the MGE rate case, see the Wisconsin State Journal article here.
Over the past few months, RENEW Wisconsin and our partners have been developing statewide policies that would expand customer access to community solar projects. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory defines community solar, also known as shared solar or solar gardens, as a distributed solar energy deployment model that allows customers to buy or lease part of a larger, offsite shared solar photovoltaic (PV) system. Community members subscribing to a solar facility receive credits for their share of the power produced, either in electricity bill savings or energy (kWh) credits.
New community solar projects are being rapidly developed around the country; 21 states, including Minnesota and Illinois, have already enacted policies that expand the community solar market between subscribing organizations and participating customers. Community solar deployment in the United States has achieved a five-year annual growth rate of 53%. But, lacking statewide policies to promote community solar options, Wisconsin is quickly falling behind.
Since 2010, the number of solar energy systems purchased by US homeowners and businesses has grown tenfold. By the end of 2019, nearly two million homeowners and businesses were reaping the rewards from producing solar-generated electricity. Solar power is popular with many US consumers, and it has become an affordable option for many households and businesses. Yet access to solar power is limited. More than 50% of Wisconsin households cannot access solar energy onsite because they rent, live in multi-tenant buildings, have roofs that cannot host a solar system, or experience some other constraining factor.
In Wisconsin right now, only regulated utilities and cooperatives can provide energy from solar gardens to customers. A few utilities, like Madison Gas and Electric, offer a shared solar service that customers can enroll in today. However, most Wisconsin utilities do not currently have a comparable program available for their customers. That lack of access will persist unless state lawmakers adopt a modernized policy to promote a robust community solar marketplace.
Senator Duey Stroebel (R – Saukville) and Representative Timothy Ramthun (R – Campbellsport) have introduced legislation that would expand access to community solar in Wisconsin. This legislation enables the development of more community solar and supports energy freedom, expands customer choice, saves money on your utility bill, all while creating healthier and more resilient communities.
With a stronger statewide community solar policy, we would open the door for homeowners, businesses, schools, churches, and nonprofits to supply themselves with clean, affordable electricity from a local solar array.
Community solar legislation would benefit all utility customers by adding locally generated electricity to our energy grid while strengthening the rural economy at the same time. Community solar brings guaranteed savings for every subscriber as well as predictable and stable long-term energy costs. It gives customers a choice to support local clean energy projects while expanding access to affordable renewable energy for low-to middle-income residents.
Community solar expansion would allow more Wisconsin farmers to lease their land to host solar arrays and receive a guaranteed secure income for 25 years or longer. This drought-resistant cash crop is especially valuable for Wisconsin’s agricultural communities facing economic stress.
The soil underneath the panels can be planted with a variety of native plants and perennials. In addition to minimizing agricultural runoff and fixing nutrients in the soil, these perennials create a high-quality habitat for bees, butterflies, and other insects that move pollen in and around the fields and improve farm productivity.
When solar panels have reached the end of their useful lives, the equipment can be removed, and crop production can resume on the land that has become more fertile as a result of the native plantings.
A robust community solar market in Wisconsin will create thousands of jobs, spur hundreds of millions of dollars in economic growth, and save customers millions in utility bills. Community solar is proven to support economic development, expand consumer choice and bring clean energy to urban and rural communities across Wisconsin.
Learn more about the proposed community solar legislation at www.wisolarcoalition.com.
 The Vision of US Community Solar: A Roadmap to 2030
Wisconsin electric providers added significantly more renewable energy content to their electricity supplies in 2020 relative to 2019, according to a July 2021 report issued by the Public Service Commission. The annual report documents the amount of renewable electricity sold in Wisconsin and determines whether electric providers here comply with the State’s 15-year-old Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). This year’s report can be accessed from the PSC’s website at Docket No. 5-RF-2020.
Overall, RPS-eligible renewable energy (or renewable energy that supplies all utility customers) accounted for 12.98% of Wisconsin electricity sales in 2020, increasing more than two percentage points from the 10.71% level recorded in 2019.
This was the most significant advance since 2013 when the State’s electric providers achieved full compliance with the RPS statewide goal of 10% renewable electricity.
As shown in the chart below, the jump in Wisconsin’s renewable energy percentage resulted from a combination of increased renewable electricity supplies and a reduction in electricity sales caused primarily by the coronavirus pandemic.
In late 2020, Wisconsin utilities placed two significant renewable electricity sources in service: the Two Creeks solar farm near the Point Beach Nuclear Plant and the Kossuth wind power plant in north-central Iowa.
||Manitowoc County (WI)
||Kossuth County (IA)
More wind generation imported
Wind power now accounts for 71% of the renewable electricity sold in Wisconsin, and approximately 75% of Wisconsin’s wind generation originates from out of state. Overall, out-of-state sources produced 60% of Wisconsin’s RPS-eligible electricity in 2020.
While Wisconsin-based solar power is growing, it still represents a small sliver of the renewable energy pie. However, by the end of 2022, in-state solar generating capacity should surpass in-state wind capacity, as the ongoing utility effort to replace older fossil plants with new renewable generation shifts into high gear.
The pattern of adding in-state solar and out-of-state wind continues to unfold this year. Wisconsin utilities will have energized two solar farms by year’s end: the 150 MW Badger Hollow 1 project in Iowa County and the 100 MW Point Beach installation, adjoining Two Creeks. In January, a South Dakota wind farm called Tatanka Ridge began generating electricity. Dairyland Power Cooperative purchases electricity from a 51 MW share of that project.
Uneven distribution of renewable content
As shown in the table below, the distribution of RPS-eligible electricity varies widely from one electric provider to another. For example, Xcel Energy, whose territory covers much of Minnesota as well as western Wisconsin, has greatly expanded its renewable energy portfolio over the last three years, relying principally on wind power located west of the Mississippi River. As of today, one-third of Xcel’s electricity supply is renewably powered.
At the other end of the spectrum, the two WEC Energy utilities—Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) and Wisconsin Electric Power (We Energies)—remain stuck in the 5-7% range. That said, RENEW expects WPS’s renewable energy percentage to move higher in 2021, lifted by a full year of production from Two Creeks and five months of production from Badger Hollow 1.
The role of Wisconsin’s RPS – then and now
Today’s electric power industry is in a much different place than where it was in 2006 when the current RPS was adopted. Back then, renewable electricity was in its infancy, both in terms of cost and engineering performance. The purpose of an RPS, as conceived by clean energy advocates and sympathetic legislators, was to was kick-start utility deployment of renewable power sources, aimed at advancing several public policy objectives, among them resource diversity and cleaner air. Upwards of 10 wind power projects presently operating in Wisconsin and the region owe their existence to the RPS.
However, the RPS’s days as a mechanism for fueling new renewable power generation are long past. This year’s crop of solar farms and other renewable projects are the products of market forces and individual utility decarbonization plans, not the RPS. But it remains valuable as a publicly accessible information portal for tracking renewable power supplies flowing through the utilities’ bloodstream. Until the day the state legislature establishes a program for reducing carbon emissions economywide, complete with new metrics and indicators, we will continue to rely on these annual reports to find out how much progress Wisconsin electricity providers are making in their quest to decarbonize their power plants.
When Governor Tony Evers introduced his 2021-23 Budget Bill in February, it included 28 provisions to advance clean energy and energy efficiency in Wisconsin. Among those provisions were recommendations to expand Focus on Energy, invest in the clean energy workforce, and support Wisconsin’s electric vehicle infrastructure.
Unfortunately, by the time the Governor signed the Budget on Thursday, July 8th, those 28 provisions, along with a majority of the Governor’s other initiatives, were removed from the Budget document adopted by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) and legislature.
A number of the provisions and other clean energy bills may still be considered during the remainder of the upcoming regular legislative session. Among the proposals we expect to be considered include:
- Community Solar Expansion – Authorize the development of non-utility-owned community solar projects. Would direct the PSC to establish fair credit rates for subscribers and compensation to utilities for the use of their infrastructure and billing services. (Introduced for co-sponsorship on July 14th)
- 3rd Party Financing – Affirm 3rd party financing of solar arrays is legal.
- Direct Purchase of Automobiles – Enable electric vehicle manufacturers to sell vehicles directly to consumers in Wisconsin, either online or at manufacturer-owned facilities, without going through an independent dealership.
- EV Charging Station Grants – Allocate up to $10 million of the unspent VW Settlement funds for clean energy corridor incentives for EV charging stations.
- EV Charging Fees – Clarify selling electricity by the kilowatt-hour to EVs does not subject EV charging station owners to utility regulation.
RENEW Wisconsin will continue to work with the legislature and the Governor to advance these and other clean energy initiatives. We hope you will join us.
If you would like to talk to your legislators about any of these provisions or have other clean energy ideas that you think the State should adopt, click here to find your representatives’ contact information.
If you have any questions or comments about any of these issues, please contact Jim Boullion, RENEW Wisconsin’s Director of Government Affairs, at email@example.com.