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Report: Wisconsin utilities lead in fighting solar energy

Report: Wisconsin utilities lead in fighting solar energy

ALE ASYLUM SOLAR PANELS 4-12192014144819 (copy)

Marc Nienhaus, an electrician with Faith Technologies, wires solar panels on rooftop at Ale Asylum brewery in Madison. A new report in the Washington Post references Wisconsin as one state that is putting up financial roadblocks to the solar industry. 

Once considered a Midwestern leader in clean energy development, Wisconsin is now referenced as one state where electric utilities with the backing of regulators are putting up financial roadblocks against the solar industry.

A stinging new report in the Washington Post mentions Wisconsin along with New Mexico and Arizona as states where traditional utilities like WE Energies and Madison Gas & Electric are fighting to maintain electric sales in the face of a changing marketplace.

The story quotes from a private meeting three years ago where power company executives were told that as demand for residential solar continued to soar, traditional utilities could soon face serious problems from “declining retail sales” and a “loss of customers” to “potential obsolescence.”

“Industry must prepare an action plan to address the challenges,” warned the Edison Electric Institute, the leading industry trade association. All four of Wisconsin's investor-owned utilities are members.

The meeting at a resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado, became “a call to arms for electricity providers in nearly every corner of the nation” wrote reporter Joby Warrick.

“Three years later, the industry and its fossil-fuel supporters are waging a determined campaign to stop a home-solar insurgency that is rattling the boardrooms of the country’s government-regulated electric monopolies,” he wrote.

Warrick’s report also makes the link between the electric utilities and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a nonprofit organization with financial ties to billionaire fossil fuel industrialists Charles and David Koch.

In Wisconsin last year, the state Public Service Commission approved major price increases in electric rate structures for state utilities. Utilities argued the changes were needed to cover the cost of maintaining the power plants, poles and wires in the face of slowing electric sales.

For MGE customers, fixed charges for residential electric service went from $10.50 to $19 a month.

MGE customers fought against the changes and eventually got the company to agree to a series of community listening sessions before pursuing additional fixed rate prices hikes going forward. At one point, MGE had talked about raising residential customer fixed charges to nearly $70 a month by 2017.

Meanwhile, the state PSC is facing a lawsuit from Madison-based Renew Wisconsin and the Alliance for Solar Choice of San Francisco, saying it was guilty of discrimination by passing additional fees on solar customers in the WE Energies 2014 rate case.

Gov. Scott Walker has appointed all three members of the PSC, with the naming in February of former Department of Administration secretary Mike Huebsch to the powerful regulatory agency.

Koch Industries has significant operations in Wisconsin, including Flint Hills Resources, which produces gasoline and asphalt; the C. Reiss Coal Co., which supplies coal throughout the Great Lakes region; and Georgia-Pacific, the packaging and paper firm. Georgia-Pacific’s chemical division is also a producer of proppant resin, a coating for small particles used in hydraulic fracturing.

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