Will Gov. Scott Walker’s Public Service Commission reverse course on renewable energy development in the state?
Clean energy advocates hope so and are reporting a "massive outpouring" of support for continuing incentives for residential solar or wind projects in Wisconsin.
Under its Focus on Energy Program, the state is authorized to spend up to $10 million per year on renewable energy incentives.
But the PSC voted 2-1 in July to suspend the incentives through the end of 2013.
The move stems from a previous directive from the commission to shift more renewable energy incentives to biofuel projects — such as manure digesters or waste wood burning — which some analysts say offer greater energy savings.
A final ruling is expected in the coming weeks, but since July, more than 630 comments were submitted to the PSC urging the panel to maintain the incentives. The three-member commission has two Walker appointees and one holdover from former Gov. Jim Doyle.
"Judging by the extraordinary outpouring of support for continuing incentives to solar and small wind, it's clear that the PSC's move to suspend incentives struck a nerve with the public," says Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin.
At issue is what percentage of renewable energy monies go toward different technologies. The commission in 2011 ordered 75 percent of Focus on Energy renewable incentives devoted to biofuels, with the remaining 25 percent going toward solar and wind projects.
But biofuel projects have been slow to develop and won’t come close to using up all the available funding this year. Focus predicts it will spend $3.05 million in total on renewables, with a breakdown of $1.6 million for solar and $1.4 million on biofuels.
So in an effort to maintain the 75-25 split, the commission in a 2-1 vote decided to halt the incentives through the end of the year, with Doyle appointee Eric Callisto casting the lone vote to continue them.
The Focus program is overseen by the PSC in conjunction with state electric utilities, who fund the effort via money collected from ratepayers.
PSC spokesman Nate Conrad says the regulatory panel is now sifting through the comments received and will make a final ruling in the near future.
"Once they get through the comments, there will be a final order issued at an open meeting," he says. "There has been no date on that as the comment period just ended."
Wisconsin was once considered something of a leader in clean energy development but has seen that standing diminish over the past several years.
An effort by Doyle in 2010 to push through a comprehensive clean energy bill failed to gain sufficient support in the Legislature. Opponents said the plan — which increased state monies for wind, solar and biofuels — would drive up electric prices in the state and cost jobs.
More recently, wind energy development has faced obstacles. Earlier this year, the PSC voted 2-1 against a large wind farm in St. Croix County, citing potential impacts on adjacent property owners. That decision is now being revisited.
Walker himself has never shown much interest in energy efficiency measures. His first budget in 2011 eliminated the state Office of Energy Independence, which worked to reduce the state's annual energy bill.
Walker nixed a directive for the state to reduce its gasoline use, stopped a program for hybrid-electric or alternative-fuel state-owned vehicles, and ended a requirement that the state consider energy use in the purchase of new appliances, lighting or heating systems costing under $5,000.
Walker also killed plans for using biomass as a fuel at the new UW-Madison power plant.
Some critics have noted the ties between Walker and Koch Industries, which is heavily involved in the fossil fuel industry in Wisconsin.
Koch's Wisconsin operations include 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 now stepping up production of proppant resin, a coating for small particles used in hydraulic fracturing.