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Wisconsin regulators to update 17-year-old rules on customer-owned power sources
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CLEANER ENERGY | CUSTOMER-OWNED POWER SOURCES

Wisconsin regulators to update 17-year-old rules on customer-owned power sources

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Solar Installation

Tyler Mairs, front, Paul Hainz, left, and Mike Eveland, of Full Spectrum Solar, install solar panels this week on a Middleton home. Wisconsin's rules on customer-owned generation were adopted in 2004, when rooftop solar was little more than a novelty.

In a move that could make it easier for homeowners and businesses to generate their own electricity, Wisconsin regulators plan to update the state’s 17-year-old rules on customer-owned energy sources.

The Public Service Commission last week approved parameters for revising administrative codes governing “distributed generation facilities” — such as rooftop solar panels, hydroelectric dams and biogas generators — that renewable energy advocates say are long out of date.

“It is a dramatically different landscape today,” said Nick Hylla, executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.

Photovoltaic solar panels, which convert the sun’s energy into electricity, were little more than a novelty in 2004 when the current code was written to address issues such as engineering, reliability and safety, and to establish methods for determining the cost to connect to the grid.

By 2019, Wisconsin had about 100 megawatts of customer-owned solar, with another 26 megawatts expected to come online in 2020. A tabletop-size battery slim enough to mount on a wall can store enough energy to supply an average home for nearly a day, and storage prices have fallen by about 90% over the past decade, according to research organization BloombergNEF.

Wisconsin’s current rules don’t even mention storage, and that has become a problem, said Michael Vickerman, policy director for Renew Wisconsin.

Michael Vickerman

Vickerman

“There’s simply no guidance anywhere in the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “It’s a really big barrier.”

Even though storage reduces reliance on the power grid, with no rules in place utilities can choose to treat batteries as generators, making it more expensive to connect a system, Vickerman said.

The proliferation of rooftop solar has led utilities to worry about losing revenue and to develop their own distributed energy programs, Hylla said.

“Utilities make money by building things, and they’re in charge of the interconnection process,” Hylla said. “How do we get transparency in the interconnection process … and trust the utility is not on the court and playing referee at the same time?”

Solar Installation

Mike Eveland, left, and Paul Hainz, of Full Spectrum Solar, install a solar panel on the roof of a Middleton home. More then 2,000 Wisconsin homeowners applied for solar rebates in 2020 for systems totaling nearly 14 megawatts of capacity.

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The update is one of dozens of actions outlined in a report delivered last month by Gov. Tony Evers’ task force on climate change, which said the “outdated and ambiguous” regulations have resulted in standards that differ from one utility to another.

“This policy, if fully and properly implemented, should result in more efficient and effective interconnection standards that make it easier and more cost-effective for underserved communities to implement customer clean energy projects, lowering carbon and other emissions, and potentially their energy costs,” the report stated.

Earlier this year a coalition of utility, business, consumer and environmental groups called for updating interconnection regulations as one of dozens of policy changes that could lead to cheaper, cleaner electricity while also creating jobs.

Distributed energy resources — which also include hydroelectric dams, biogas and landfill gas — account for about 1.7% of Wisconsin’s generation capacity, according to the current Strategic Energy Assessment. Solar accounts for the single largest share of that — about 40%.

With costs plummeting and federal tax credits winding down, Wisconsin has seen a surge in rooftop solar installations that is expected to continue in years to come.

Focus on Energy received more than 2,000 applications in 2020 from homeowners looking to claim a state rebate, up from 768 the previous year and more than quadruple the number just three years ago.

Those projects account for nearly 14 megawatts of capacity, which along with more than 12 megawatts of commercial installations amounts to more than five times the amount just five years ago.

Hylla said the PSC has an opportunity to create major changes that could result in wins for both consumers and utility shareholders by encouraging utilities to develop distributed resources in low-income neighborhoods designated as economic opportunity zones.

Nick Hylla

Hylla

“Now is not the time to think small. If we want to be a state that leads in recovery … then a small tweak isn’t what we want,” Hylla said. “Rule-making dockets are very important. They can make or break the market.”


Fave 5: Reporter Chris Hubbuch's favorite stories of 2020

My favorite stories to write are those that require me to learn about something new and force me to see the world from a different perspective. There were many such stories to tell during this extraordinary year, though none of my top five were directly related to the pandemic.

I’d known Wisconsin was a big producer of mink pelts, but I didn’t know that most of the North American fur trade moved through a Stoughton business that traced its lineage back to the Hudson Bay Company. The folks at Saga Furs, who took over the operations of North American Fur Association, were kind enough to teach me about the business and let us photograph them.

Few landscapes have captivated me like the Driftless region, where I was fortunate enough to live for nearly 15 years. It’s an enchanting place with unrivaled beauty, and, it turns out, is also highly resilient to climate change, providing habitat for species that left other parts of southern Wisconsin with the retreating glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. Also, never pass up a chance to spend time in the woods while on the clock.

Journalists spend a lot of time writing about problems -- after all, it’s not news when a plane lands safely -- so it’s refreshing to be able to write about solutions. In this case, a very simple solution -- farming the way it was done for centuries -- fixes so much. It can help farmers turn a profit, keep soil where it belongs, protect lakes and streams, and even fight climate change. And the Gruenfelders are good people running a quality farm on some of the most scenic land in the world.

Full disclosure: for the better part of five decades many of my happiest moments have occurred while riding a bike. I’ve also seen how outdoor recreation opportunities played a role in economic development of two cities I’ve called home -- Chattanooga and La Crosse. So the prospect of developing a city-wide offroad trail network excites me for personal reasons as well as its potential to improve the quality of life for all residents.

This was one of the more difficult stories I wrote this year, largely because of the complexity of the contamination and remediation concerns but also the long history of the plant and redevelopment efforts that weren't familiar to me as a recent transplant. It didn't help that I wrote the story from my daughter's hospital room during a one-day procedure that took four days. (She's fine.)

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