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Friday, November 14, 2014

Public Service Commission Approves We Energies' Rate Hikes & “Solar Tax”


MADISON, WI – With a 2-1 vote voiced at an open meeting Friday afternoon, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission approved a 75% increase in monthly fixed charges and sweeping changes that will pile additional charges on customers who choose to install solar energy panels starting in 2015. The vote was split down partisan lines with Gov. Scott Walker appointees Chairperson Phil Montgomery and Commissioner Ellen Nowak supporting the changes; and Commissioner Eric Callisto, an appointee of Gov. Jim Doyle, opposed.

“Under this decision, customers who use more will see lower bills and customers who use less will see higher bills. It sends the wrong price signals on energy efficiency because it makes it harder for customers to control their monthly bills,” said Robert Kelter, senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“The Public Service Commission has effectively approved a new tax to be collected from residential and small business customers that would like to create some of their own energy, such as with solar panels,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin. “This decision is bad for job creation, bad for energy independence, bad for the environment, and bad for customers. Today our Republican-appointed Commissioners approved a new tax, killed jobs, and restricted energy choice in Wisconsin.”

“The commission has ignored the facts in this case and decided whether you embrace energy efficiency, or want to generate some of your own electricity with solar panels, you should pay more,” Kelter said.

“It also ignored a record level of over 1,900 public comments, 89% of which were opposed to these changes,” Huebner added.

The Public Service Commission decision will:

  • Increase monthly fixed fees from $9.13 to $16.00
  • Impose a $3.79 monthly tax on every kilowatt of a solar installation (a 4 kilowatt system would pay $181.97 a year)
  • Transfer about 40% of the value of solar installation from the homeowner to We Energies through changes in payments and charge
  • Pay just 4.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy generated by customer renewable energy systems

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New Analysis: Over 90% of Public Commenters Are Opposed to Utility Rate Redesigns

A new analysis conducted by RENEW Wisconsin of the public comments filed in three controversial utility rate cases shows that over 90% of the more than 3,500 public comments offered are opposed to the rate hikes and changes to how customers with renewable energy systems will be treated. Read the full report, "Wisconsin Utility Rate Redesigns Overwhelmingly Unpopular".

In addition to the analysis, the report includes several quotes from the large variety of stakeholders who made their voices heard in this public process, and a listing of businesses and organizations that made time to participate. From seniors to social workers, businesses to students, shareholders to household Wisconsin brands like Organic Valley, people and organizations made public comments in record numbers.

The three utilities that have proposed these changes include Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) out of Green Bay, We Energies based in Milwaukee, and Madison Gas & Electric (MGE).  A typical rate case receives comments numbered in the dozens at most.  WPS’ case received nearly 360 comments, with only 2 individuals supportive of the change.  That means over 99% of commenters in the WPS case were in opposition to the fixed rate hike. 

In addition to those comments, over 7,500 individuals signed onto petitions opposing the rate change for WPS, and those petitions were also entered into the record.

Comments for We Energies and MGE were due a month later, in early October, and the volume of comments hit an even higher order of magnitude. Approximately 1,950 comments were offered in the We Energies case and 1,250 in MGE’s, with 89% and 90% opposed in those respective proceedings. 

“The public showed tremendous concern for the bill increases, reduced incentive to conserve energy, and reduced customer control over their energy bill that these proposals will bring about.  With so many comments filed, we wanted to make sure that the volume and tremendous content from the public was summarized and presented for the world to see,” said RENEW Wisconsin’s Executive Director, Tyler Huebner.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Wind Siting Council Releases Health and Policy Report

Photo of Forward Wind Project, in Fond du Lac and Dodge Counties
Five years after the adoption of Wisconsin’s wind siting law (2009 Act 40), Wisconsin’s Wind Siting Council, a 15-member stakeholder body created by that law, prepared and issued a report reviewing pertinent peer-reviewed literature on the effects of wind generators on human health. The report also includes a study of state and national regulatory developments regarding wind siting, and discusses current policy trends regarding the siting and permitting of wind energy systems. Both the Public Service Commission (PSC) and the Legislature received copies of this report. The report is accessible on the PSC’s website here.

In the years following the development of Wisconsin’s wind siting rule (PSC 128) in 2010, council members collected literature addressing health effects of wind energy systems. The Council restricted its review to literature that specifically focused on human health.  Pertinent literature included empirical research, reviews and opinion articles appearing in peer-reviewed scientific journals and reports from government entities, an example being the January 2012 report issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Public Health.

In addition to the primary report, which was supported by a majority of council members, there are two minority perspectives contained in the report’s appendices. The conclusions and recommendations supported by the Council majority are summarized below:

Key Findings from Wind-Health Literature (pages 2-3)
  • Nine publications based on cross-sectional surveys of individuals living in the proximity of utility-scale wind energy systems have been conducted or analyzed since the Council’s 2010 recommendations.
  • Some individuals living in the proximity of wind systems may experience annoyance and a small faction report sleep disturbance due to wind turbine operation.
  • Stress and sleep disturbance may be related to chronic health conditions.
  • There are substantial differences in how people report their perception of wind energy systems and a negative perception affects whether an individual reports adverse health effects that they attribute to wind energy systems.
  • The majority of individuals living near utility-scale wind systems do not report stress, sleep deprivation, or chronic health effects attributed to wind turbines.

Conclusion – Health Impacts (page 16)
“Although there are several publications arguing that noise from wind turbines directly causes adverse health effects in humans, based on the peer-reviewed literature, it appears at this time that there is insufficient data to validate this scientific conclusion. It will be a priority of the Council to continue surveying the peer-reviewed literature to determine if this consensus changes, if a viable mechanism of "infrasound and low-frequency noise"-caused adverse health effects is shown, and if the medical community identifies a disease associated with wind-turbine noise exposure. Although important and indeed ground-breaking research is clearly being conducted in the field of wind-health interactions, the Council is unable, at this time, to conclude that wind turbines have a direct and negative effect on human health.

As it stands, the literature available to the Council lacked strength and, in some instances, was biased. Many of the authors of the material cited herein point this out and call for more detailed, randomized, long-term studies in the future. The Council is aware of at least one study [Government of Canada, Health Canada and Statistics Canada] being conducted by a government panel that is designed to do just that and at least one additional governmental review of the literature.  These may shed light on new health issues associated with wind turbines or confirm the Council’s finding that there is no direct link between wind turbines and human health. At the very least, ongoing research should clarify the sometimes muddy waters of the wind-health debate.”

Conclusion – Policy Developments (page 22)

“Wisconsin’s siting regulations for wind energy systems are evidently consistent with other and national policy regulatory developments. It is clear that in future projects, Wisconsin should continue to provide a transparent regulatory and approval process for wind developers, as well as keep in mind that best practices should be determined by the best available information about the relationship between wind energy systems and siting and zoning.”

No Recommendations for Legislation (page 4)
"Wisconsin's wind siting rule, Wis. Admin. Code ch. PSC 128, is the product of an extensive and transparent review process and has been in effect since March 16, 2012. Absent any specific information arising from a wind project reviewed and approved under PSC 128, and based on the survey of peer-reviewed scientific research regarding the health impacts of wind energy systems, and the study of state and national regulatory developments regarding the siting of wind energy systems, the Council majority finds no reason at this point to recommend legislation regarding the siting of wind energy systems."

One week following the issuance of the Wisconsin Wind Siting Council’s report, the Canadian government released its Wind Turbine Noise and Health Study. In that study, researchers from Health Canada and Statistics Canada conducted a door-to-door survey involving more than 1,200 households in Ontario and Prince Edward Island.  The study found no cause-and-effect relationship between wind turbine noise and any negative health indicators identified through the testing.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Wisconsin’s Renewable Energy Rebates Extended for Two Years, but Funding Levels Are Lower

November 7, 2014
For Immediate Release

MADISON -- In a 2-1 decision made Thursday, November 6, the Public Service Commission approved a four-year redesign of Focus on Energy’s renewable energy program that will offer $5 million in cash-back incentives for qualifying projects in 2015 and $3.5 million in 2016.  The statewide renewables program will also establish a new $10 million revolving loan fund which would start taking applications in 2015 for projects in 2016 through 2018.

The approved plan does not commit incentive dollars to renewable energy projects in 2017 and 2018.  Instead the Commission requested a report in mid-2016 to review funding options for those two years.

Yesterday’s decisions came after Commission deliberations in July which resulted in a preliminary decision to end the cash-back rebates entirely and replace them with a loan program. After discussions with RENEW and other energy stakeholders, the Commission asked for funding options that included a continuation of direct incentives, resulting in yesterday’s vote on the redesigned program.

The renewable energy plan, which was approved by Chairman Phil Montgomery and Commissioner Ellen Nowak, sets a total of $5 million in cash-back rebates for 2015 and $3.5 million in 2016.  In his dissenting vote, Commissioner Eric Callisto signaled his support for more incentives:  $6.67 million in incentives for each year of 2015 to 2018, with a smaller loan program.

Undercutting the impact of the 2015 allocation is the fact that $4.2 million of the $5 million total has already been allocated to projects, leaving only $800,000 in new funding for next year. Approximately $450,000 will be available for solar and geothermal for residential and small businesses in each of the next two years, with the remaining funding towards larger projects for businesses, farms, and nonprofits.

“The renewable energy cash-back rewards have been instrumental in building a market for customers to take advantage of the benefits of solar, small wind, geothermal, and bioenergy projects in Wisconsin for many years,” said Tyler Huebner, RENEW Wisconsin’s Executive Director. “It has helped build a marketplace for these technologies and a robust network of small businesses helping customers in this state.  Over the past four months, RENEW Wisconsin worked with members of the renewable energy business community, the administrator of the Focus on Energy program, and staff at the Public Service Commission to ensure some level of rebates would continue, and we achieved a small victory but not as much funding or the four years of certainty for which we were hoping.”

“It appears only $800,000 in rebates will be available for newly identified projects in 2015, and that is a big concern for our industry,” said Huebner, “because this program has already been hard hit by on-again off-again funding interruptions over the past few years.”

The loan program would be based largely on a successful program in Iowa called the Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program.  Funds would be lent out from Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program for very low interest rates for up to 50% of a project’s cost, and matched with a loan from a financial institution at market interest rates for the remainder of the project.  CB&I, the Focus on Energy program administrator, has estimated that 1/7th of the $10 million would be spent each year for 7 years, enabling the payback of the loans to fund additional loans in future years.

The Commission also decided to eliminate the defined split between certain types of technologies.  Over the past four years, biogas and biomass projects received more funding than wind and solar. “Going forward, that defined technology split will be removed as far as RENEW Wisconsin understands, and that is a welcome change,” said Huebner.

Back in July, the Commission also approved a $6 million program aimed at anaerobic digesters for dairy farms.  That program would explore ways to utilize the biogas digester technology on smaller dairy farms.  “Continued investment into biogas is needed so we can identify more opportunities to recover energy and valuable by-products from cow manure, and reduce concerns about runoff and water quality issues,” said Huebner.

Renewable energy is a growing field nationally, with over 143,000 jobs in solar energy alone, according to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census in 2013.  That’s more than the U.S. auto industry and almost 50,000 more than the U.S. coal mining industry. 

“We need to continue our focus in Wisconsin on job creation, and the clean energy sector is a job-creating sector.  All we have to do is look to our neighboring states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan to look at the robust job markets in renewable energy.  For example, Michigan was just named the sixth best state nationally for clean energy jobs growth,” concluded Huebner.