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Wisconsin regulators approve We Energies solar projects despite concerns from renewable energy advocates

Wisconsin regulators approve We Energies solar projects despite concerns from renewable energy advocates

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Wisconsin regulators approved two We Energies proposals Thursday that will significantly increase the state’s current solar electricity capacity despite objections from renewable energy and consumer groups.

One program will allow commercial customers to contract with the utility to build renewable generation facilities to offset their energy use and then receive a share of the proceeds from the electricity generated.

That’s expected to result in up to 150 megawatts of mostly solar capacity.

Under the other, called Solar Now but sometimes referred to as “rent a roof,” We Energies would install up to 35 megawatts of solar panels on customers’ property. The utility would own the panels and the electricity, and the customer will get a monthly lease payment based partly on how much electricity the panels generate.

The Public Service Commission unanimously approved both proposals.

“(It’s) a reasonable way for them to assist their customers,” Commissioner Mike Huebsch said of Solar Now. “I think this opportunity that the company is providing … is a unique way of finding out if we are going to be able to effectively provide solar arrays within cities.”

Renewable energy advocates welcome the addition of new solar generation, but they warned the Solar Now program does not guarantee the best terms for participants and that the utility is using its monopoly powers to compete with private developers.

We Energies says Solar Now will be a cost-effective opportunity for customers who want renewable energy and will result in much faster expansion of solar energy than individual rooftop projects.

Unlike previous “green tariffs” approved by the commission, the costs of Solar Now — which the Citizens Utility Board estimates could reach $128 million over 30 years — will be shared by all ratepayers. Past commissions have been reluctant to support renewable energy programs that don’t limit costs to participants.

“The program approved today will benefit utility shareholders much more than it will solar participants, at a cost to all customers,” said CUB executive director Tom Content.

Commissioners agreed to explore a request from CUB, which advocates for residential and small-business customers, to collect data on participation, generation and costs. They also allowed WE Energies to begin spending money before the costs are folded into customer rates.

The commission did not address the issue of who can own solar panels connected to the power grid, an area of ambiguity in state law.

We Energies contends that ownership is limited to regulated utilities and their customers, an argument it used to refuse the city of Milwaukee’s plans for seven developer-owned solar facilities.

Renewable energy advocates and installers say customers should be able to lease or finance equipment through private developers.

Huebsch said those are “valid concerns” that are beyond the commission’s authority to decide. He called on the Legislature to review it.

“The solar market is dynamic,” he said. “It’s something that our laws need to be on top of.”


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