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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ale Asylum's New Solar Installation and Climate Change Pledge in the News

Following our press release yesterday, the Milwaukee Business Journal posted an article covering Ale Asylum's climate forward actions. Find the article online here.

Ale Asylum brewery adds solar panels and climate change pledge

Apr 27, 2015, 3:47pm CDT
Scott Paulus
The Ale Asylum brewery in Madison produces about 20,000 barrels of beer annually.
Reporter-Milwaukee Business Journal
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Ale Asylum, the Madison brewery with a 100-kilowatt rooftop solar electric system, has become the first Wisconsin brewery to sign a declaration to fight climate change being circulated by The Ceres Foundation.
More than 50 beer producers have signed the Brewery Climate Declaration, which holds that climate change caused by air pollution poses a threat and a challenge that must be addressed.
“And in doing this right, by saving money when we use less electricity, by driving a more efficient car, by choosing clean energy, by inventing new technologies that other
countries buy, and creating jobs here at home, we will maintain our way of life and
remain a true superpower in a competitive world,” the declaration says.
For its part, Ale Asylum installed the 480 solar panels that produce about 20 percent
of the electricity needed to operate its brewery and produce about 20,000 barrels of
beer each year.
“When we built our new facility, one of our goals was to increase our sustainability efforts,”Dean Coffey, Ale Asylum brewmaster said. “These measures include recycling
spent grain to local area farmers, utilizing energy given off in the brewing process for
our tasting room, and harnessing the cold winter air to help keep our large walk-in
cooler at the proper temperature.”
Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, said a number of Wisconsin breweries, including MillerCoors LLC and Milwaukee Brewing Co., have taken
steps to reduce energy consumption and re-purpose waste. The Brewery Climate Declaration represents a “can-do” message to be followed by the 2,800 breweries
in the U.S., Huebner said.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Ale Asylum Goes Solar, Joins Brewery Climate Declaration

For immediate release
April 27, 2015

More Information
Tyler Huebner, Executive Director

One month after activating a 100-kilowatt rooftop solar electric system, Madison-based Ale Asylum became the first brewery in Wisconsin to sign onto the Brewery Climate Declaration, a national campaign calling attention to the specific risks and opportunities of climate change on the $246 billion industry.

Launched this spring by Boston-based Ceres, a nonprofit advocacy organization, the Brewery Climate Declaration has attracted endorsements from more than 50 beer producers across the nation, ranging from local craft breweries like Ale Asylum to major international brands like Guinness and Sierra Nevada. 

According to Ceres, these breweries “are showing their leadership and commitment to brewing with the climate in mind. They are already reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using less energy, choosing clean energy, and investing in new technologies.” The declaration states: “Leading is what we’ve always done. And by working together, regardless of politics, we’ll do it again.”

On Earth Day 2015 (April 22nd), Ale Asylum hosted a celebration of their solar-powered beer along with SunPeak, a Madison-based company who developed the rooftop system, and RENEW Wisconsin, a statewide renewable energy advocacy organization. 

Overhead view of Ale Asylum's solar
installation, courtesy of SunPeak
SunPeak installer at work on Ale Asylum's new array
“When we built our new facility, one of our goals was to increase our sustainability efforts,” said Ale Asylum brewmaster Dean Coffey.  “These measures include recycling spent grain to local area farmers, utilizing energy given off in the brewing process for our tasting room, and harnessing the cold winter air to help keep our large walk-in cooler
at the proper temperature.”

“The solar panel installation came at a time where we were about to experience a huge spike in production needs,” Coffey added.  “To be able to crank out beer while reducing
greenhouse emissions is a great thing!"

Ale Asylum’s array is the newest of a quartet of recent installations in Dane County equaling or surpassing 100 kilowatts (kW). The other three systems serve the City of Monona (156 kW), Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton (146 kW), and Dane County Airport’s new maintenance facility (100 kW). 

Consisting of 480 panels facing east and west, Ale Asylum’s installation should generate about 150,000 kilowatt-hours per year, the most productive of any solar system operating in Madison today. That is equivalent to the electricity needs of about 16 average Wisconsin homes.“SunPeak’s niche is in dovetailing international experience, where solar is far more mature and established, with the U.S. market to uncover unique value creation and proposition to larger customers like Ale Asylum,” said company president Chad Sorenson.

“Ale Asylum’s solar installation and participation in this declaration demonstrate its committed corporate leadership.  Going solar saves money, and Ale Asylum is just the latest example of this growing trend in Wisconsin,” said Tyler Huebner, Executive Director of RENEW Wisconsin.

For more information about Ceres’ Brewery Climate Declaration, see link below.

RENEW Wisconsin leads and accelerates the transformation to Wisconsin’s renewable energy future through advocacy, education, and collaboration. More information on RENEW’s web site at

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Important Announcements from April 15th Joint Finance Committee Hearing on Public Service Commission Budget

Yesterday, April 15, the state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee met to decide the budget for the Public Service Commission.

Three items of importance to the renewable energy community.

1. Studying the health effects of wind:  The Governor had proposed $250,000 to study health related impacts of wind energy.  The funding was cut for that study, but the Commission was directed to conduct a review of studies relating to health effects of wind turbines.  These studies do not have to be “peer reviewed,” and a motion to include that phrase was shot down.  If the review shows substantial negative health effects, the PSC may submit revisions to the existing rules pertaining to siting wind farms.

2. Higher utility bills likely coming your way:  Out of seemingly nowhere, and as the last order of business of the day, an amendment surfaced to cut public funding for citizen participation in cases at the Public Service Commission.  The motion was passed 12-4, with all Republicans voting for it.

In an article published in the April 19th Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tom Content reports that the amendment was the brainchild of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC). Coincidentally enough, We Energies CEO Gale Klappa is vice-chairman of the MMAC board.

As discussed in a blistering Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial from the same day, the measure will lead to higher utility bills because it would slash funding for the Citizens Utility Board, or CUB, a nonprofit organization which advocates for lower utility expenses and bill savings to customers.  In 2014 alone, CUB saved utility customers $161 million.

The editorial asks MMAC to explain to ratepayers across Wisconsin why it thinks eliminating CUB funding is such a good idea. The editorial calls on the budget committee to reconsider its "inexplicable decision to sock it to utility customers....And if it fails to do that, Gov. Scott Walker should find a way to restore CUB's funding. Utility customers need a watchdog with teeth."

The measure also cuts funding by 50% for groups like RENEW Wisconsin when we bring expert witnesses to utility cases on renewable energy issues.

3. Focus on Energy.  No action or amendments surfaced that would affect the Focus on Energy program.  This is a good thing.  However, it is highly likely that proposals to amend the program in some fashion may surface
later this year, or perhaps even later on during this budget process.

We will continue to stay abreast of these discussions as they develop.

Upcoming calendar:  Yesterday was the first meeting of the Joint Finance Committee, which is aiming to finish its work on the entire budget by Memorial Day.  The budget must be passed by both the Senate and Assembly before the end of June, therefore none of these items are finalized at this point.

More details on the above items are found below:

Results from the Joint Finance Committee meeting, April 15, 2015, relating to the Public Service Commission's budget

 Motion #48 - Wind Energy Health Study

Joint Finance Committee approved a substitute motion to delete the Governor’s recommendation, including the appropriation of $250,000 from the 2015-2017 state budget, and “instead require the PSC instead to conduct a review of studies conducted to ascertain the health effects of industrial wind turbines on people residing near turbine installations. If the review shows that there are substantially negative health effects on people living beyond the current 1,250-foot setback radius, the PSC may submit necessary revisions to the existing administrative rules to the Legislative Council Rules Clearinghouse, not later than six months after completion of the study.”

The amendment was moved by Rep. Nygren and approved on a party line vote (12-4).

Joint Finance Committee rejected a motion (#55) to insert the words “peer-reviewed” before "studies" on line 2 of Motion #48 in the above motion on a party-line vote (12-4).

Motion #29 - Intervenor Compensation

Joint Finance Committee approved a motion to cut the intervenor financing budget and “repeal the authorization for grants to nonprofit corporations that have a history of advocating on behalf of ratepayers and by reducing the compensation rate for consumer groups and consumer representatives from 100% of the cost of participating in a PSC hearing to 50% of the cost.” Approval of this motion will “decrease expenditures from the appropriation by $671,300 PR annually. These provisions would become effective on July 1, 2015, or the day after publication of the budget act, whichever is later.” The amendment was approved on a party line vote (12-4).

Background information on this program:

                 The intervenor compensation program was created in 1983 and since that time, has provided financial assistance to organizations and individuals who choose to become an intervenor for a Commission proceeding. When organizations or individuals have been granted intervenor status, they may submit testimony and exhibits, which became part of the record considered by the Commission in making decisions. Typically, intervenors use the compensation to pay for expert witnesses. The motion would require the intervenor to pay for half of the costs it incurs.

                 The intervenor compensation program was modified by 2009 Wisconsin Act 383, which authorizes an annual grant of $300,00 to a nonstock, nonprofit corporation that has a history of advocating on behalf of residential ratepayers for affordable rates. The recipient is required to use the grant “for the purpose of offsetting the general expenses of the corporation, including salary, benefit, rent, and utility expenses.” In 2011, the grant program was modified to allow the PSC to distribute the $300,000 among more than a single group and impose additional conditions and to revoke a grant. Since its creation, the Citizens Utility Board has been the only grant recipient. The motion would repeal the grant.

                 The intervenor compensation appropriation is a biennial appropriation authorized to expend up to $1,042,500 annually ($300,00 for grants and $742,500 for compensation). The actual amount expended on intervenor compensation depends on the number of docketed cases, as well as other factors. Funds for the payments are generated through the PSC’s direct and remainder assessments on public utilities.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Will Minnesota fixed-rate decision impact Wisconsin Fight?

The article below teases out a recent rate case ruling in Minnesota and how it might affect an upcoming case in Wisconsin. In addition to being the largest electric utility in Minnesota, Xcel Energy also serves much of western Wisconsin, including La Crosse and Eau Claire. Right now, Xcel's residential customers in both MN and WI pay a monthly fixed charge of $8.00.

Posted on 04/15/2015 by Kari Lydersen

(Photo by Jimmy Emerson via Creative Commons)
(Photo by Jimmy Emerson via Creative Commons)

Utility rate cases have become a major battleground over the future of distributed solar generation and the evolving structure of the nation’s electricity system.

In the Midwest, Wisconsin has been ground zero, with state regulators last year approving three rate cases that made solar much less viable through several mechanisms, including a drastic increase in the fixed monthly charges for all ratepayers, regardless of how much electricity they use.

The next major development on that front will be a case that Xcel Energy is expected to file in late spring or summer. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission has made it clear that it welcomes requests for increased fixed charges and related measures, as RENEW Wisconsin program and policy director Michael Vickerman and other energy experts see it.

But a March 26 decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on an Xcel rate case in that state could mean Xcel is unlikely to request the type of fixed rate increase that other utilities in Wisconsin have been granted.

In Minnesota, which along with North and South Dakota makes up about 85 percent of Xcel’s upper Midwest territory, the utility had requested a $1.50 increase in fixed charges each month. The Minnesota PUC allowed Xcel to collect more revenue and increase rates in general, but it denied the monthly fixed rate increases.

“Having a neighboring public service commission say no will hopefully warn that not everybody is marching forward” with fixed rate increases, said The Alliance for Solar Choice spokesperson Amy Heart. “That this isn’t necessarily a trend in the Midwest.”

“The decision in Minnesota demonstrates just how out of step the Public Service Commission is in Wisconsin.”

Paying for the grid

The fixed-rate portion of an electric bill is meant to cover the cost of grid infrastructure, and utilities around the country have argued that even when people reduce their energy use – including through solar installations – they still need to pay an increased “fair share” for keeping up the grid.

Since Minnesota essentially rejected that argument, and since the grid infrastructure delivering to Wisconsin Xcel customers is largely the same system as in Minnesota, experts say Xcel would have a hard time justifying higher fixed charges for Wisconsin customers.

In other words, if it costs only $8 a month to deliver electricity to Minnesota Xcel customers, it doesn’t compute that it would cost much more to deliver to customers only a few miles away over the Wisconsin border.

“They will be constrained internally from asking for a large increase in fixed costs, though it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t do it,” said Vickerman. “They would feel like, ‘Hmm, this could cause problems with respect to the other customers served by the Xcel system.”

Heart added that “our suspicion [and] hope is that it’s an indication that Xcel would be more judicious and cautious in their upcoming rate request in Wisconsin as to whether they would include any fixed rate increase.”

Xcel response

Xcel spokesperson Mary Sandok did not respond directly to questions about whether the company will seek higher fixed costs in Wisconsin and whether the Minnesota decision will affect the company’s Wisconsin rate case.

“No decisions have been made in either Minnesota or Wisconsin about whether to include increases in monthly basic service charges in future rate cases,” she said. “Also, each state’s regulatory environment is different, and the decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will not necessarily affect what we decide to do in Wisconsin.”

Sandok echoed the same argument that We Energies and other utilities around the country have made for increasing fixed charges: “Our monthly basic service charge for residential customers in Minnesota and Wisconsin currently is well below the fixed cost of providing basic service to customers: service lines to their homes, metering, billing, etc. These costs are incurred regardless of the amount of energy customers use.”

But the fixed rate increase that Xcel requested in Minnesota was still far below the increases requested and approved for Wisconsin utilities. Both Public Service Corp. in northern Wisconsin and MG&E increased their fixed rates from about $10.50 to $19 per month, and We Energies’ increase is from about $9 to about $16 a month.

The Minnesota Xcel rate case was launched in November 2013 when the utility requested a $291 million rate increase over two years, saying it needed more money to maintain its nuclear plants and upgrade its transmission infrastructure. Like utilities around the country, Xcel is also struggling with dropping or flat electricity demand. Nationwide, this is an effect in part of increased energy efficiency and distributed generation.

The Minnesota PUC decision was in keeping with the June 2014 findings of the state commerce commission and the December ruling of an administrative law judge, which both said that Xcel should reduce its rate increase requests. The PUC also approved the state’s first decoupling program, a structure where the utility does not get more profit the more energy it sells. That program should theoretically alleviate the need for the utility to increase its fixed rates.

Larger context

Across the country utilities have been requesting fixed rate increases and other changes that make solar installations less viable. Renewable energy advocates say the utilities are trying to protect the traditional model revolving around large centralized power plants and limited distributed generation.

In the majority of cases, according to analysis by The Alliance for Solar Choice, regulators have turned down utilities’ requests and made decisions amenable to the spread of distributed solar. But the Wisconsin Public Service Commission has been an outlier, as experts see it, approving rate cases despite a lack of evidence backing up the utilities’ arguments and in the face of public opposition to the changes.

Public Service Commission spokesman Nathan Conrad disagreed with that characterization, saying, “All decisions made by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin are based on the totality of the record before them, no other outside influences or sources are considered in any case before the Commission.”

While renewable energy proponents hope the Minnesota decision could have larger ripple effects in neighboring Wisconsin, Vickerman and others see this as unlikely, given what they describe as the staunchly ideological position of the Public Service Commission.

“It’s really the Public Service Commission in Wisconsin that’s driving the rate restructuring change, moreso than the utilities,” said Vickerman. “This commission has rang the dinner bell.”

RENEW Wisconsin is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.