Republican lawmakers have drafted legislation that would allow Wisconsin residents and businesses to lease solar panels, something advocates say is critical to expanding access to renewable energy.
The bill authored by Sen. Rob Cowles, of Green Bay, and Rep. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, of Appleton, is intended to address ambiguity in state statutes over who is considered a public utility, which has allowed utilities to refuse to connect leased systems to the grid.
“Distributed solar is an economic driver, creating thousands of family-supporting jobs, and making Wisconsin businesses more competitive,” the lawmakers wrote in a memo seeking co-sponsors. “This de facto ban continues to hurt job creators looking to expand their businesses, employ Wisconsinites, and offer competitive options to interested households, hospitals, schools, and local businesses.”
The bill, which also applies to wind, hydroelectric, excess industrial heat and other renewable energy sources, comes as the Public Service Commission has repeatedly declined requests to clarify whether a company that leases solar panels is considered a utility and therefore subject to regulation.
“The PSC has spoken clearly that they want the Legislature to clarify,” said Jason Mugnaini, an aide to Cowles who says it shouldn’t matter how customers finance the cost of solar panels.
“Nobody asks you how you finance your new furnace,” Mugnaini said.
The issue has spurred at least two lawsuits: One from an Iowa company that was blocked from installing solar panels for the city of Milwaukee, and another from the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, which claims the PSC overstepped its authority by preventing non-utility companies from providing services such as financing.
Utilities have opposed such leasing arrangements, sometimes called third-party financing, on the grounds that state law allows only regulated utilities to sell electricity. A spokesman for the Wisconsin Utilities Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment but has lobbied against the proposal.
Heather Allen, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, said the bill would expand access to renewable energy, particularly for government and nonprofit organizations that can’t benefit from federal tax credits.
“Without clarity, Wisconsinites lack access to all of the financing options they need to meet their clean energy goals, create jobs, and manage energy bills while improving the resiliency of the electric grid,” Allen said. “Wisconsin must affirm the legality of third-party financing to facilitate the shift to clean energy for everyone.”
But a new study predicts fewer than 2% of rooftop solar panels are likely to be installed under current market conditions.
Scott Coenen, executive director of the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum, said the bill would bring Wisconsin in line with the rest of the nation to allow consumers the freedom to pay for solar panels however they see fit.
“Right now, outdated and muddled laws make Wisconsin the only state explicitly preventing consumers from leasing solar panels,” Coenen said. “This artificial barrier disenfranchises consumers, businesses, local governments and communities across the state.”