The Public Service Commission adopted a solar program for We Energies on Thursday that could cost customers more than $128 million over the next 30 years and increase rates by nearly $8 million in the first year of operation.
The PSC approved a program known as Solar Now that would allow We Energies to own the solar panels on the rooftops of businesses, nonprofits and schools.
It’s a far cry from four years ago when We Energies was proposing to put a surcharge on bills of customers that generated their own solar power, and shows that the price of renewable energy is declining and becoming more cost-effective.
But CUB raised concerns about the cost of this program and shared concerns raised by others that the initiative could squeeze out competition in the solar marketplace. Wisconsin’s laws are ambiguous about the legality of third-party financed solar in Wisconsin, and Thursday’s decision extends the utility’s monopoly into the small solar arena.
“Just as they are given a choice when they walk into a car dealership, customers deserve a choice in terms of whether they want to lease or rent panels and they should be allowed to shop around from a variety of options,” said Tom Content, executive director of CUB, Your Independent Consumer Voice.
“The program approved today will benefit utility shareholders much more than it will solar participants, at a cost to all customers.”
CUB had wanted the Commission to reject the Solar Now program as too large and costly for a utility with high rates as it is. Perhaps a smaller solar pilot would be more workable for the utility, in CUB’s view.
In its comments Renew Wisconsin suggested a shareholder-funded pilot instead, similar to the wind farm purchases that We Energies’ parent company, WEC Energy Group, has made in other states. Renew also expressed concern that We Energies could “poach” solar projects from businesses that have already signed on with solar companies but need the monopoly utility’s OK to hook up those projects.
At the same time, the PSC approved a larger solar program for We Energies that is similar to the Madison Gas & Electric green tariff adopted last year. Under this program, large companies or municipal governments can buy into a utility-scale solar project that would be developed in Wisconsin.
This program didn’t cause costs to go up for other customers, so CUB raised no concerns about it in its comments submitted to the PSC earlier this week.
Also Thursday, the PSC endorsed the Renewable*Connect initiative proposed by Xcel Energy’s Northern States Power utility in Eau Claire. Renewable*Connect will provide Xcel customers an option for greening their electricity usage without creating added costs for other customers, so CUB endorsed the concept in comments submitted to the PSC.
“Our chief concern comes down to the bottom line for customers, and We Energies structured its two pilots in different ways,” Content said. “The larger pilot doesn’t cause costs to go up for other customers. But the Solar Now pilot does, to the tune of nearly $130 million.”
A variety of stakeholders weighed in with comments on the proposal, including renewable energy experts and advocates and the city of Milwaukee.
“It was heartening to see sizable public interest in this case, with nearly 200 comments submitted,” Content said. “But it’s disappointing that their concerns weren’t heard.”