Dramatic Slowdown in Market Activity Anticipated
By Michael Vickerman
July 11, 2011

What started out as an opening salvo from the Walker Administration to shackle large-scale wind projects has in six months turned into a systematic campaign to dismantle the state policies that support renewable energy development. Joining the executive and legislative branches in pursuing policy rollbacks and/or funding cutbacks against renewables are various utilities and, surprisingly, Focus on Energy, Wisconsin’s ratepayer-funded energy efficiency and renewable programs.

Since January 1st, Wisconsin has seen a series of assaults against utility-scale projects and smaller renewable systems serving both residences and businesses. These include the following actions:

  • The Legislature suspended PSC 128, the statewide rule developed by the Public Service Commission last year in response to a law passed by the Legislature in 2009 ordering the agency to establish uniform standards for permitting wind energy systems. Since the March 1 suspension vote, wind development in Wisconsin has slowed to a standstill.
  • The Legislature adopted SB 81, a bill that RENEW Wisconsin describes as the “Outsource Renewable Energy to Canada Act.” SB 81 allows Wisconsin utilities to meet their renewable energy requirements beginning in 2015 with electricity generated from large hydropower plants in other states and Canada. By allowing Wisconsin utilities to become even more dependent on energy imports than they are today, SB 81 turns Wisconsin’s Renewable Energy Standard on its head. Importing large-scale hydropower exports the very dollars that could have been used to harness Wisconsin’s renewable energy resources. 
  • We Energies, the state’s largest electric utility, abruptly decided in May to walk away from an agreement with RENEW to dedicate $60 million over a 10-year period in support of renewable energy development in its territory. The decision came in the sixth year of this program. We Energies plans to reallocate the unspent dollars (totaling about $27 million) to general operations. 
  • Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) instituted in April a new net energy policy designed to discourage new customer-sited renewable energy systems. Until recently WPS had been paying its customers the full retail rate for electricity that flows back on the wires, which is now about 12 cents/kWh. But under the new rate, WPS only pays three cents/kWh for electricity exported to the grid. Moreover, the utility calculates the net each month, which penalizes customers whose loads vary significantly depending on seasonal factors. Right now, the new policy only covers systems installed after March 2011, but WPS has said that it plans to apply that rate to older systems effective January 2013.
  • In its deliberations on the biennial state budget passed in June, the Legislature appended a rider to tie Focus on Energy’s annual budget to a percentage (1.2% of gross utility revenues). This action will mean a cut of $20 million in the program’s 2012 budget relative to this year’s allocation of $120 million. The Focus on Energy program provides grants and cash-back awards supporting customer investments in solar electric, solar thermal systems, small wind, biogas and biomass energy systems. 
  • Last, but certainly not least, as of July 1, Focus on Energy stopped accepting applications for business program incentives to help customers install renewable energy systems. These incentives, which average about $7 million per year, had been available since 2002 to businesses, farms, schools, local governments and other nonprofit customers. It is not clear when these incentives will be resumed and in what quantity. 

This one-two punch of policy rollbacks and funding cutbacks has cast a pall over the state’s renewable energy marketplace. At this year’s Energy Fair in Custer, Wisconsin, the prevailing mood of contractors and exhibitors was one of bewilderment tinged with anger. It is dawning on these companies that their state, which once took pride in its efforts to nurture a thriving renewable energy market, is becoming an inhospitable place to do business. The transformation is occurring with stunning speed; no business is likely to be spared from this abrupt reversal of fortune, which will hit home soon and continue for several months, if not years.

At this moment, however, the Wisconsin renewable energy landscape is humming with installation activity. New wind turbines are soaring above cornfields in Columbia County, where construction crews and operating engineers from Appleton-based Boldt Construction and Brownsville-based Michels Wind Energy assemble what will become Wisconsin’s largest wind generation facility. The towers for the Glacier Hills wind energy project are being fabricated at Tower Tech in Manitowoc. Solar hot water systems now crown the rooftops of new apartment and university buildings, while solar PV panels mounted on 14-foot-tall poles rise above a farm field in Dane County to power Epic Systems’ ground source heat pump system. A cranberry company in Monroe County is about to become the second of its kind to rely on a pair of small wind turbines for its electrical needs. Meanwhile, all across Wisconsin one can find contractors building this year’s crop of bioenergy systems that convert the effluent from dairy farms, cheese producers and wastewater treatment plants into a baseload source of electricity.

Indeed, this wave of projects, fueled principally by funding commitments made in previous years and the early part of this year, should keep contractors and installers busy through the end of 2011. Though an observer unfamiliar with this year’s travails might be deceived by this show of vitality, both installers and advocates know that this activity can’t be sustained for long without a fresh supply of oxygen in the form of policy and funding initiatives. But until state government recognizes the folly of its war against renewable energy and changes course on energy policy, the rollbacks of 2011 will suck much of the oxygen out of next year’s renewable energy marketplace, setting it up for significant contraction in the years that follow.

How Wisconsin benefits from shrinking its renewable energy business community and becoming even more dependent on finite supplies of fossil energy imported from afar is a question worth posing to our political leaders. In our view, that approach is guaranteed to turn Wisconsin into an economic backwater. Is this what they hope to achieve? Probably not. But the toll on the state goes beyond the jobs that weren’t created, the investments from overseas that went to other states, and the tax revenues that failed to materialize as projected.

An even bigger casualty of these rollbacks is Wisconsin’s ability to project itself as a center of consistency and stability, a place where policy changes affecting businesses occur gradually and over time. Not long ago, Wisconsin political leaders were capable of working on complex legislative matters in a low-key and bipartisan manner. An example of that is the Energy Efficiency and Renewables Law (2005 Act 141) signed into law in March 2006, which increased Wisconsin’s Renewable Energy Standard to 10% by 2015 and protected Focus on Energy from future budget raids. That law created what seemed at the time to be a durable framework for enabling renewable energy resources to play an expanded role in the state’s energy future.

However, it is now painfully evident that the political consensus that created the five-year-old law has evaporated. The resulting vacuum has emboldened incoming legislators to fix their crosshairs on the policy mechanisms supporting investment in renewable energy. With the active assistance of politically powerful interests like the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, these legislators are now attacking Wisconsin’s pro-renewable energy policies in a manner resembling a wave of Formosan termites going through a house.

What has happened to Wisconsin’s energy policy here is a microcosm of the radically polarized political dynamic that has, unfortunately, become “the new normal” in this state. In this environment, confrontation is celebrated and compromise is shunned. Politics in Wisconsin has become a roller-coaster ride that is heavy on the sharp turns and violent dives, and light on the straightaways and gentle grades. And, with the Senate recall elections this summer and the virtual certainty of a gubernatorial recall election in the offing, this dynamic is not going away any time soon.

Needless to say, this volatility makes long-range financial commitments to upgrading the state’s energy infrastructure a challenge if not an impossibility. The suspension of the state’s wind siting rule, for example, upended a deliberate and multiyear effort to build predictability and certainty into the permitting process. With the rule in abeyance, what wind developers now face amounts to a random walk through a minefield. Small wonder that many of the developers who were active here three years ago have migrated to less explosive pastures. Indeed, high-profile rollbacks like these give the state an unwelcome reputation as being famously difficult to do business in.

Amazingly enough, despite the onslaught from political leaders and certain utilities, public support for renewable energy has held strong, according to a St. Norbert College poll conducted between April 11 and April 18 for Wisconsin Public Radio. More than three-quarters of the respondents favored additional investments in windpower, even if such expenditures would increase monthly electric bills. The rankings for each resource surveyed were: wind (77%), hydropower (60%), biomass (54%), natural gas (39%), nuclear (27%), and coal (19%). The results suggest that the hostility that the Walker Administration and the Legislature have shown to the renewable energy business community is completely out of step with the public.

Along with many other organizations and individuals, RENEW Wisconsin helped build public awareness on the value of renewable energy for jobs and energy self-sufficiency. Now in its 20th year, RENEW Wisconsin finds itself vigorously defending the many policies and practices that made Wisconsin a regional leader in the use of its native renewable energy resources. Though the future is fraught with challenges and uncertainties, about one thing we can be certain: the assaults and policy swings that come our way will not change either the citizen consensus or RENEW Wisconsin’s commitment to a future based on clean, local and sustainable energy.