Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

New Wind Power Project to Freshen WPPI Energy Mix

Last week WPPI Energy announced it will purchase the output from a large 132 megawatt wind project in Illinois.  With this planned addition of a new source of wind energy to its generation portfolio, WPPI Energy will strengthen its position as a low-cost provider of clean energy to its 51 member municipal utilities, 41 of which are located in Wisconsin. 
Along with its previously announced solar addition in Manitowoc County, WPPI Energy will be providing over 20% renewable energy to its customers when these projects are completed.
RENEW Wisconsin’s Executive Director Tyler Huebner released the following statement:
“We commend WPPI Energy for partnering with Invenergy to expand its supplies of clean, affordable wind energy.  Wind energy is the lowest-cost way to produce wholesale power here in the Midwest.  We encourage other Wisconsin electricity providers to follow WPPI Energy’s example of adding wind and solar to their generation mix.”

Situated in Henry County southeast of Rock Island, Illinois, the new wind project will supply WPPI Energy with about 450 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year when it is placed in service next year. The 66-turbine, 132-megawatt project will be owned by Invenergy, a Chicago-based wind developer, which also owns the 86-turbine, 129-megawatt Forward Energy Center south of Fond du Lac.
The companies’ press release can be found at:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Reports of a solar slowdown are greatly exaggerated

The writer Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” Considering how far and fast misinformation can travel in this era of digital mass communication, Swift’s observation has grown even more prescient.
Earlier this month, a New York Times article declared that prospects for the U.S. rooftop solar market were dimming rapidly, a result of a utility-led campaign to roll back solar incentives at the state level. According to the article, the “explosive” growth experienced by the solar market in the last two years “has come to a shuddering stop,” going from an increase of 900 percent to a decline of 2 percent.
A few days later, a Chicago Sun-Times editorial cited these same statistics to paint its own grim portrait of a market seizing up due to the utilities’ pressure campaign.
With numbers like these, this characterization can’t help but conjure up images of installations interrupted in mid-construction, with stacks of panels and racking teetering in abandoned job sites ringed by forlorn chain-link fences. But there’s a serious problem with this picture, which is that it is utterly imaginary, without any grounding in the solar marketplace observable today.
In assessing the vitality of the solar energy marketplace, the reporter compared annual rates of growth from one year to the next. The problem with using that particular yardstick is that rates of growth will inevitably level off as the market matures and approaches saturation. Had the New York Times reporter simply compared numbers of systems installed or numbers of megawatts added from one year to the next, he would have arrived at a far truer picture of the situation.
According to reports prepared by GTM Research and Solar Energy Industries Association, 2016 was indeed a record-breaking year for solar energy, in which the capacity added nearly doubled 2015’s results.  And though capacity additions this year will fall short of last year’s totals, it will surpass 2015’s additions by about 75 percent.
Yes, there will be a modest slowdown in 2017 relative to the year before. But in what universe can that trend line be characterized as a “shuddering stop”?
It’s worth noting that the GTM Research expects solar generating capacity to triple in the next five years, a milestone that can be accomplished with only a 25 percent annual growth rate.
In addition to the mishandling of the statistical measures, there are serious flaws with the article’s narrative. One of them is the assumption that the rooftop solar market is just for residences. But that view ignores the increasing popularity of larger solar systems on commercial and institutional rooftops.
Recent installations in Wisconsin, my home state, include a clinic in Onalaska (314 kW), a high school in Minocqua (280 kW), a convent in Fond du Lac (246 kW), a cold storage warehouse in Plymouth (560 kW), and two Target stores in the Madison area (540 kW combined).
And what are the factors driving solar energy’s growing with this market segment? Four causes stand out: (1) a sustained decline in the installed cost of solar energy; (2) rapid expansion of financing options and structures; (3) the extension of the investment tax credit for solar energy at 30 percent through 2019; and (4) greater sophistication in sizing PV systems and regulating their output relative to the customer’s load.
The articles also convey the implication that utilities are prevailing in their war against rooftop solar. While they have won a few battles here and there, including Indiana, they have lost in most other jurisdictions, and, in some cases, badly.
Nowhere has this war been waged with greater intensity than in Nevada. After state regulators issued an order in 2015 that devalued customer solar generation and sent the solar industry there fleeing to other states, state lawmakers sought to correct this injustice. This June, the legislature passed and the governor signed a law that restores fair credit to solar-generated electricity exported to the grid.
Indeed, if there is one state where the “reversal of fortune” meme is particularly apt, it is Nevada, though history will affirm that it was the antisolar camp that suffered this fate, not the solar industry.
Shifting eastward, a bid by New Hampshire utilities to have net metering scuttled boomeranged into a net loss for them. While Granite State regulators did approve temporary rates that will reduce incrementally the export value of solar-generated electricity, they also lifted the cap on net metering that would have otherwise triggered a slowdown in the marketplace. In the short run at least, this compromise will create stable market conditions and lead to an acceleration of solar installation activity there.

As noted in a recent guest column in Utility Dive, in states like Nevada and New Hampshire, the truth did finally catch up to the false narrative spun by utility lobbyists and their enablers. The result will be an expansion, not a contraction, of on-site solar generation, driven by fair pricing and customer demand. These outcomes can happen in other states as well, including my own, but it would certainly help if reporters would recognize and incorporate these important policy victories when they chronicle the trials and tribulations of the solar energy marketplace.
Michael Vickerman is program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin, a renewable energy advocacy organization. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Madison navigates partnership with utility as it pursues 100 percent clean energy goal

Written by Kari Lydersen
June 25, 2017

On March 21, Madison’s city council signed a resolution committing the city to power 100 percent of its operations with clean energy.
The resolution was especially notable since the utility serving Madison gets almost half of its power from coal, and several years ago was among Wisconsin utilities making national headlines for policies seen as hostile to distributed solar energy.
But now the utility, Madison Gas & Electric (MGE), city officials and clean energy leaders are negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding that lays out plans for the expansion of solar, the spread of electric vehicles and other clean energy improvements. And the utility has pledged its support for the city’s clean energy goal.
Advocates describe the MOU and the city’s recent choice of consultants to develop clean energy plans as important progress.
Michael Vickerman is the program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin and a member of the city’s Sustainable Madison Committee. Speaking in his role as a committee member, he called the MOU historic.
“It will enable the utility and one of its customers to jointly plan clean energy projects,” he said. “This generally doesn’t happen with utilities. You may think of the city as this governmental powerhouse, but in the eyes of the utility it’s just another customer. In order to commit city resources and staff time to joint endeavors and also for the utility to commit its own personnel and resources, both the city and MGE believe the scope of work should be spelled out in some kind of agreement.”
But some controversy over the MOU also shows how challenging it can be to bring together multiple parties with different responsibilities and interests in pursuit of a target as ambitious as 100 percent clean energy.
In 2016 the city adopted an energy work plan that included a promise to sign an agreement with MGE regarding collaboration on topics including electric vehicles, solar and grid modernization.
In June a resolution was introduced to the council that would give the city attorney and Mayor Paul Soglin authority to execute the MOU. The group Repower Madisonand several council members were concerned that this measure meant the council and the public would not actually have formal say over the contents of the MOU. And, they were unhappy that a May draft of the MOU did not mention the city’s 100 percent clean energy goal or anything about coal-fired power.
Council member David Ahrens said the proposed MOU was not given to council members to review when the resolution about it was first introduced, “creating a level of suspicion and unease about the process.” When the early draft of the proposed MOU “inadvertently” was made public, as Ahrens described it, he was disappointed that the 100 percent clean energy goal was not mentioned.

An improved draft

An amended draft MOU dated July 11 does note the city’s goal of 100 percent clean energy.
MGE spokesperson Dana Brueck said, “MGE supported the resolution for 100 percent clean energy at every stage as well as the Energy Work Plan. We believe we can accomplish more [toward the clean energy goal] by working collaboratively.”
supporting document with the MOU proposes ways the utility and city could collaborate, including on a shared solar project, increased outdoor solar lighting, electrified public transit, electric vehicle group buys and boosting participation in the city’s voluntary energy efficiency benchmarking program.
Vickerman applauded these ideas and said he is especially hopeful about a solar program that MGE is developing with Madison, wherein the city or other entities could buy solar power directly from solar arrays that are not on their own sites.
“The city doesn’t need the MOU to build renewable generation on its own premises — that has been happening already,” Vickerman said. “But the memorandum of understanding will enable the city to talk to MGE about their [city] plans to enter into contracts with other generators or maybe with MGE to build larger clean energy projects.”
Vickerman also said the MOU would help the city’s ongoing efforts to electrify its buses and other vehicles, adding new charging stations.
“It’s going to be rather difficult for cities in general to have an influence over where these charging stations go, unless they negotiate and plan directly with the utility,” he said. “That’s an area spelled out for collaboration.”
Repower Madison organizer Mitch Brey said the group is pleased with the focus on electric vehicles and other priorities cited in the MOU, and with the recent inclusion of the clean energy goal in the text. But he is still concerned that the MOU does not mention shifting away from coal, or address electric rates and fixed charges on bills. Repower Madison was formed in 2014 in response to MGE’s proposals to greatly increase fixed charges and other measures seen as hostile to distributed solar.
“It appears that MGE isn’t interested in talking about coal with the city,” said Brey. “If the utility is going to have discussions with the city, it should be about reaching the 100 percent clean energy goal. It appears a lot of the language used in this document is ‘identify, pursue, investigate, explore, develop, pilot.’ Pursue is fine, but these are a lot of verbs that indicate a lot of talking. There is a real big worry that this will amount to little more than greenwashing, and make MGE look like they’re a good partner but lack on deliverables.”
Vickerman countered that the city can’t control MGE’s energy mix as a whole, and that the goal is to spark enough solar and other renewables that Madison’s own city operations can be powered entirely by clean energy. With its Energy 2030 Framework, MGE has committed to provide 30 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030.
“The city has no authority over MGE’s generation – that is in the purview of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin,” Brueck said. “Our Energy 2030 framework sets clean energy goals and a number of objectives for the benefit of all of our customers. One of those goals includes transitioning away from coal, which we continue to do. Our ongoing transition is a priority independent of our collaboration with the city. Any further changes to our existing fleet would be sought in the interests of all of our customers and would be subject to approval by the Public Service Commission, which has sole authority over MGE’s generation.”
The resolution authorizing the mayor to sign the MOU was slated to be voted on in a city council committee on July 17, but that vote was delayed until August 21 — which Brey noted is the day of the solar eclipse. 

Mutual support

The proposed MOU says that the city will support MGE in regulatory matters before the state Public Service Commission or other bodies, “that are, in the City’s judgment, consistent with the cooperative intent of this MOU.” Likewise, it says MGE will support matters before city council that are in the spirit of the MOU.
Ahrens expressed reservations about the promise to support MGE on issues before the Public Service Commission, since the MOU “doesn’t define what those issues might be.” He pointed to MGE’s previous requests to the commission for drastic fixed rate charge increases, saying “that was a blunder of huge proportions for them.”
In 2017 MGE increased its overall electric and gas rates, but kept a promise not to seek further increased fixed charges.
“Our collaborative efforts with the city have nothing to do with rate cases,” said Brueck. “The city has no authority over or oversight of MGE rate cases.”
The proposed MOU would create a steering committee with five members from the utility and five from the city or the Sustainable Madison Committee, including Vickerman and committee chair Raj Shukla, who is executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin.
Brey said Repower Madison wants to see an elected representative on the steering committee, they want the meetings to be public and they want the steering committee to issue periodic public reports.
Brey thinks that Madison and MGE should look for inspiration in Minnesota, where utility Xcel and the city of Minneapolis in 2014 signed an MOU. That MOU formed a board of representatives from the city, Xcel and Centerpoint Energy, who meet at least quarterly and come up with specific deliverables that will help Minneapolis fulfill its Climate Action Plan, including a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 (from 2006 levels).
“We need to work toward agreement like that or it’s not really worth having,” said Brey.
But Vickerman feels confident about the latest draft of the MOU, and the clean energy goal more broadly.
“We would consider this particular agreement to be absolutely essential for the city to achieve its goal,” Vickerman said.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Outstanding Comeback to Heartland Institute’s Anti-Wind Malarkey

by Michael Vickerman, Program and Policy Director 

At a rally in Cedar Rapids in June, President Trump said:  “I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your homes and your factories … as the birds fall to the ground.” Trump drew a lot of flak for that statement, which reflected his personal belief that wind generation and high-end golf resorts can’t co-exist in Scotland and other locations where the Trump Organization has a presence.

Shortly after this presidential put-down of wind power, the Heartland Institute, an industry-funded mercenary outfit that promotes maximal use of fossil fuels, let loose with a predictably canned harangue echoing and amplifying Trump’s complaint. Following a familiar pattern, Heartland’s commentary, which was published in the Des Moines Register, traffics in hyperbole that is utterly disconnected to the reality of wind power development experienced by ordinary Iowans. 

On that score, Jon Kallen, a former employee at MidAmerican Energy and a self-described Republican, weighed in with a guest column documenting that reality and the many positive impacts flowing from the Hawkeye State’s embrace of wind energy. Kallen’s editorial does an outstanding job of cataloging how broadly distributed these benefits are, and, in doing so, methodically exposing the dishonesty that lies at the core of Heartland’s editorial.

In the final sentence of his editorial, Jon Kallen wrote: “Maybe our neighbors to the east will catch up someday.” He had Illinois in mind, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be applied to Wisconsin as well.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

RENEW Urges PSC Approval of MGE’s Renewable Energy Rider

by Michael Vickerman, Program and Policy Director 

A proposal from Madison Gas & Electric to establish a renewable electricity service for larger customers has garnered strong support from RENEW Wisconsin as well as from the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group and individual companies such as Target and Airgas. After introducing the Renewable Energy Rider in its 2016 rate case, MGE submitted a revised version to the Public Service Commission this year, which triggered comments from various stakeholders.

In our comments, RENEW highlighted the growing number of companies who desire a robust renewable energy service from utilities that serve their facilities. Sixty-five of these companies adopted a set of principles to maximize the value of these purchases, both in terms of  achieving their internal sustainability goals and locking in future cost savings.

As stated in our comments, “these companies are increasingly deciding where to locate their facilities based on whether the utility is willing and able to provide them with significant levels of renewable energy. We believe these tariffs offer an economic development opportunity in the service territories where they exist, and we want Wisconsin to be a place where these corporations prefer to locate.”

The Public Service Commission will issue a final ruling on MGE’s Renewable Energy Rider in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

PACE Financing Now in Place in 19 Wisconsin Counties

by Michael Vickerman, Program and Policy Director 

Since 2016, Wisconsin counties have begun opting into an innovative program called PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy), which enables property owners to obtain low-cost, long-term loans for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water conservation improvements. At its most recent meeting on June 16, the Dane County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution authorizing the County to join the program. In so doing, Dane joined 18 other Wisconsin counties that offer this special financing tool to leverage clean energy investments on commercial and industrial properties.

Projects financed using PACE can generate positive cash flow upon completion with no up-front, out-of-pocket cost to property owners—eliminating the financial barriers that typically prevent investment in revitalizing aging properties. The term of a PACE Financing may extend up to the useful life of the improvement, which may be as high as 20 years or more, and can result in cost savings that exceed the amount of the PACE Financing. The result is improved business profitability, an increase in property value, and enhanced sustainability.  

PACE Financing is sourced from an open lending market and secured through a voluntary PACE Special Charge, repaid directly to the lender. Like property taxes, PACE Financings may be transferred to the next property owner if the property is sold. The remaining balance of the PACE Financing is repaid by the subsequent owner, who continues to receive the benefits of the improvements from the project. Eligible commercial properties include multifamily buildings of five units or more, as well as industrial, private nonprofit, agriculture, and hospitality properties.

A voluntary initiative, PACE Wisconsin began taking shape last year when three state organizations--Green Tier Legacy Communities, the Counties Association and League of Municipalities-- joined forces to launch a Joint Powers Commission and to recruit counties to enter into the program. Member counties agree to adopt a Model PACE Ordinance when they join the Commission, which authorizes the county to impose a PACE special charge, collect payments for the special charge in installments, place those installments in the tax roll at its discretion, and delegate that authority to the PACE Commission.

For more information on Wisconsin’s PACE program, including an up-to- date map of participating counties, visit

Friday, May 26, 2017

Wisconsin’s First Solar Subdivision to Rise in New Berlin

For the first time ever in Wisconsin, prospective home buyers have the option of purchasing a brand-new house with a solar array sized to offset 100% of household electricity use. A trio of Wisconsin companies broke ground this week on a residential development in New Berlin that will integrate rooftop solar arrays into all 34 residences built there.

Representatives from Neumann Companies, SunVest Solar, and
Tim O'Brien Homes break ground on May 23, 2017 at Wisconsin's
first net-zero planned community.

Developed by Pewaukee-based Neumann Companies, the home sites at Red Fox Crossing, located on the southwest corner of S. Sunny Slope Road and W. Grange Ave., will be oriented to fully capture the solar energy available. Madison-based Tim O’Brien Homes will design and construct the solar-ready houses, and Pewaukee-based SunVest Solar will design and install each solar system, ranging from six to eight kilowatts.

Households that purchase a new house in Red Fox Crossing will finance the solar array through a 30-year mortgage with a 4% interest rate. As the tables below show, the power of long-term financing enables home buyers to reap substantial savings with the first monthly payment.  Indeed, the return on investment for these solar arrays will range between 10% and 20% for the duration of the mortgage.

When fully built out, Red Fox Crossing will have between 200 and 260 kilowatts of behind-the-meter solar capacity in operation. It is on a path to become Wisconsin’s first net zero (electricity) community.

Members of the SunVest Solar team at the groundbreaking.

“It has always been our dream to offer an energy independent community,” said Matt Neumann, principal of Neumann Companies. “We are excited to have all three companies involved in creating Wisconsin’s first net zero community.”

System Price
Focus on Energy Rebate
Federal Tax Credit (30%)
Out-of-Pocket Cost*

* after tax credits and rebate

Monthly Payments
Solar Production Value
Monthly Savings

* calculations based on We Energies current residential rates

According to a WTMJ-TV report, the Neumann team expects individual lots to be ready for permitting and construction sometime this fall, and the first home to be completed and generating electricity by next spring.

“Red Fox Crossing has the potential to be the turning point in building a more sustainable community and neighborhood in Wisconsin, versus focusing on only one home at a time,” said Tim O’Brien, president of Tim O’Brien Homes.

Neumann Companies' new office in Pewaukee, which also features solar panels on the roof.