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Monday, November 18, 2013

RENEW Wisconsin Blasts PSC Over Solar Vote Flip-Flop

Chair Reverses Himself One Week After Pro-Solar Vote

Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin Policy Director

At its open meeting on November 14, 2013, Public Service Commission (PSC) Chair Phil Montgomery reversed his own vote taken a week earlier that would have strengthened Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) Corporation’s net metering service starting January 2014.  

A week earlier, Montgomery stated his preference for ordering WPS to loosen a key restriction applicable to new solar systems. He was joined by Commissioner Eric Callisto in that discussion. But at the later meeting, Montgomery reversed himself, and sided with Commissioner Ellen Nowak.  

As a result of Montgomery’s about-face, WPS will continue to offer the most restrictive net metering service in the state, which will depress Wisconsin’s already struggling solar market even further.

In testimony presented in WPS’s 2014 rate case, RENEW Wisconsin, a clean energy advocacy organization, argued that the utility’s net metering service puts prospective solar generators at a disadvantage relative to other utility customers. RENEW’s testimony included figures revealing a steep drop-off in the number of solar electric systems built in WPS territory beginning in 2012.

The generally accepted practice among utilities is to calculate the net between production and consumption over a 12-month period.  Alone among Wisconsin utilities, WPS calculates the net each month, a practice that lengthens system payback.

“Though a complicated and highly technical policy, net metering is the principal driver for customer installations of solar.  Net metering for solar is like rollover minutes for your cellphone, and details like calculating the rollover annually versus monthly really matter,” said Tyler Huebner, Executive Director of RENEW Wisconsin. “It’s clearly in Wisconsin’s interest to establish a policy environment for solar energy that is predictable, easy to understand, and uniformly applied from one utility to the next,” Huebner said.

At the initial open meeting on November 6, Commissioner Montgomery expressed support for those principles. As captured in the Wisconsin Utility Regulation Report, “Montgomery said his preference was to direct the applicant to adopt an annual netting structure for this tariff consistent with what the commission decided in [We Energies]’s last rate case  . . . .”

Statement of Tyler Huebner:

“The facts in this case did not change between the Commission’s voice votes on November 6 and 14, and the need for a stronger and more uniform net metering policy did not diminish. But this breathtaking decision erases the PSC’s one positive decision on WPS’s treatment of solar energy, and the result will be yet another step backward.” 

“For those solar installers in central and northeast Wisconsin who initially cheered the PSC’s decision, Montgomery’s flip-flop comes as a bitter pill to swallow. Indeed, the welcome mat that once greeted start-up solar businesses here has all but disappeared.”

Let’s take a step back and look at the broader picture on electricity generated from the sun.  Nationally solar adoption increased a whopping 76% from 2011 to 2012, yet in Wisconsin the number of systems connected to the grid declined by 40%.  Approximately 14,000 jobs were created nationally in the industry in 2012, a 13.2% annual employment jump, taking the national total to 119,000 jobs.  Next, 92% of American voters agree that it is important for the U.S. to develop more solar, and 84% of Wisconsin voters support a three-fold increase in the amount of electricity the state gets from renewable sources like solar. Finally, based on research from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, solar energy creates twice as many jobs for every dollar invested as coal, and more than twice that of natural gas.”

“Solar is a growing industry, an industry that creates more jobs per dollar invested than its competitors, and the people want it badly.  Yet, in a state that claims it’s open for business, a state where we want and need to create jobs, our public officials are impeding progress. What a huge lost opportunity for the state. We have to go no further than Iowa to hear a completely different tune, where Republican governor Terry Branstad said just two weeks ago, ‘As a leader in wind energy and renewable fuels, Iowa should be at the front of the pack in implementing programs that encourage the use of solar energy as well.’”

“This is the third decision that has severely hampered clean energy and Wisconsin job creation in as many months. In September, the PSC voted to suspend Focus on Energy renewable energy incentives through the end of the year, ensuring that millions of dollars earmarked for this purpose will go unspent this year. Then in October, the PSC rejected our petition to initiate a new proceeding for improving the state’s interconnection rules.  These rules determine how easy or difficult, and how expensive or cost-effective, it is for a potential owner of a renewable energy system to connect into the electric grid.  Wisconsin’s rules haven’t been updated since 2004, even though  technology has changed a lot since then.  For example, that was four years before the first iPhone even came out. The PSC fumbled an opportunity to step in and streamline these administrative procedures.”

“These three recent decisions are job-killing decisions.  If you don’t think Wisconsin is falling behind on the policies that make solar energy flourish, take a look at how Wisconsin fares against its neighboring states.   “For any public official that wants to create jobs in Wisconsin, give us a call, we can help you.”

Ranking Midwestern States on Solar Policies and Practices
How Does Wisconsin stack up against neighboring states?
Net metering grade
Interconnection grade

Source: Freeing the Grid 2013: Best Practices in State Net Metering Policies and Interconnection Procedures, Interstate Renewable Energy Council, 2013.  Net metering policy for renewable energy systems is like rollover minutes for your cellphone:  it ensures that owners of renewable energy systems get full credit for the power they generate.  Interconnection rules determine how easy or difficult, and how expensive or cost-effective, a state’s rules are regarding connecting distributed energy generators (such as solar, wind, and biodigester systems) to the grid.  Wisconsin’s interconnection rules haven’t been updated since 2004.

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