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An installer with Full Spectrum Solar of Madison, installs solar panels at a home near Belleville. The PSC has suspended solar energy grants for 2013 through the Focus on Energy program, a move that is drawing fire from green power advocates.

Efforts to develop the solar and wind energy industry in Wisconsin have taken another hit, although not a completely unexpected one.

Under orders from the Public Service Commission, the state has stopped offering grants to help homeowners and rural residents install solar or small scale wind projects.

The move stems from a previous PSC decision to shift renewable energy incentives offered through the Focus on Energy program to biofuel projects. 

The Focus program is overseen by the PSC in conjunction with state electric utilities, who fund the effort via money collected from ratepayers.

Up to $10 million in renewable energy funds are available annually. The commission last year voted to commit 75 percent of that funding to biofuels, with the remaining 25 percent going to solar and wind projects.

The commission says biofuels in Wisconsin offer greater energy efficiency potential than solar or wind.

But biofuel projects — which include burning waste wood or using manure digesters to generate electricity — have been slow to develop and won’t come close to using all the available funding this year. Focus projects it will spend $3.05 million total on renewable, with a breakdown of $1.6 million for solar and $1.4 million on biofuels.

So to maintain a 75-25 split in renewable spending for 2013, the commission ordered a halt to the solar and wind grants through the end of this year.

Suspension of the grants was made public last week by the environmental group Renew Wisconsin, which is urging concerned citizens to weigh in with PSC prior to its meeting on Aug 13.

Renew Wisconsin says the “on-again, off-again history” with Focus grants is hurting the renewable energy business in the state. It also says tying all green power support to how much is spent on biofuels is confusing both to those seeking the incentives and the 330 different companies that install renewable energy systems in the state.

“Businesses need predictability and certainty to flourish and hire more employees,” says Renew Wisconsin executive director Tyler Huebner.

PSC officials have declined to comment on the issue, citing a pending decision on the grants at its upcoming meeting Tuesday. The three-member commission is comprised of two appointees of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and one holdover from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. It was split 2-1 in a preliminary ruling on the renewable energy question, with Doyle appointee Eric Callisto voting to maintain the grants through 2013.

Meanwhile, officials with Focus on Energy say they are looking to the PSC to offer clearer direction for awarding the grants in 2014. But they anticipate the residential program for solar will return in January, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Still, the suspension of the grants comes as Wisconsin continues to lose ground to other states in pursuing clean energy.

“Other states like Minnesota and Georgia have adopted pro solar policies to take advantage of this rapidly growing industry sector,” says Huebner. "How does Wisconsin gain from discouraging investment in clean energy and driving businesses to locate in other states?”

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