Home Latest News Wisconsin solar advocates seek ruling on financing tool – Madison.com

Wisconsin solar advocates seek ruling on financing tool – Madison.com

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Alan Watson, left, and Tommy Olson of Midwest Solar Power install solar panels on a Monona home in October 2021. Solar advocates are asking Wisconsin utility regulators to bless a financing tool that could expand access to the technology.
Renewable energy advocates are again asking Wisconsin regulators to bless a financing mechanism that could expand access to solar energy.
This time a former renewable energy advocate could cast the deciding vote.
Two groups — Vote Solar and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association — last week filed petitions asking the Public Service Commission to declare that third-party financing is legal under state law.
Vote Solar, a nonprofit advocacy group based in California, says it is seeking affirmation on behalf of Wisconsin members who want to install third-party-financed systems on their homes, businesses and places of worship.
MREA, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit advocacy and job training organization, and some of its members intend to provide third-party financing but have held off because of “the overhanging threat” of PSC investigations and enforcement proceedings.
The group says one member’s project was put on hold “when a utility representative told the would-be customer that third-party financing is prohibited by the PSC.”
The current petitions come as the PSC, Legislature and court system have each declined to provide clarity on the law.
While contract details vary, third-party ownership is a financing mechanism that could make solar energy available to more people, including residents who can’t afford the upfront costs and local governments, schools and nonprofits that can’t benefit from federal tax credits.
Wisconsin law says that public utilities are subject to regulation by the PSC, but the definition of a public utility is ambiguous: any entity providing “heat, light, water or power … to or for the public.”
Renewable energy advocates say it’s clear that a company financing a customer-hosted system is not a “public utility,” but informal documents and the commission’s past refusals to rule on the issue have created regulatory ambiguity.
The groups say it’s time for the commission to resolve a “decade of uncertainty” and stop considering agreements on a case-by-case basis, which they say amounts to an effective ban since third-party providers have to absorb the costs of litigation unlike monopoly utilities, which pass them on to ratepayers.
Distributed energy resources (DERs) can include solar panels, batteries, thermal storage or smart power controllers that operate “behind the meter” — or on the customer’s property. Future applications could also include smart thermostats and electric vehicle chargers.

The town of Christiana is asking the courts to reverse the Public Service Commission’s approval of the Koshkonong Solar Energy Center, which would produce enough electricity to power about a third of the county’s homes.
Although they can supply power to the grid, MREA argues they are more akin to appliances than utility-scale power systems, though they can also benefit other utility customers by reducing energy and transmission costs as well as wear on equipment.
MREA points out the physical equipment is the same, as is the reduction in use of utility power, regardless of how it’s paid for.
“There is no difference to the public, the utility company, or the grid between customers who own DERs outright and those who utilize third-party financing,” the group wrote.
Renew Wisconsin says the lack of legal clarity creates “an unjustifiable restriction” on people’s rights to supply themselves with clean energy produced on their own property and that it’s “past time” for the PSC to clear the path.

Wisconsin law says homeowner associations can’t restrict peoples’ rights to install solar panels on their property. Many do it anyway. 
Previous commissions have rejected similar petitions for rulings on the question of third-party financing, with conservative appointees arguing that is the Legislature’s job.
MREA last year sued the commission, arguing it had overstepped its authority by effectively preventing third-party-financing agreements. The case was dismissed, but in its petition MREA points out that the commission itself has told the court that a declaratory ruling is the appropriate process for deciding public utility status.
Earlier this year, the commission did consider a petition from Eagle Point Solar, an Iowa company whose agreement to install solar panels for the city of Milwaukee was blocked by We Energies.
But the commission deadlocked, with Chair Rebecca Valcq agreeing the practice was purely financial and Commissioner Ellen Nowak siding with the utility.
Huebner
Commissioner Tyler Huebner abstained because of his involvement with that case prior to joining the commission. But neither of the new petitions are covered by his recusal agreement, meaning he could cast the deciding vote this time.
Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, whose bill to clarify the legality of third-party financing died last year without a floor vote, urged the PSC to act “within their broadly endowed powers” to approve the petitions.
Cowles
“It’s long past time we recognize that a financing arrangement for a homeowner, church, farm or small business does not infringe on the regulated monopoly utility model,” Cowles wrote. “You can finance anything from a new water heater to energy efficient windows to help reduce your energy consumption, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to do the same to generate your own electricity.”
Kayla Soren and Diego Frankel enjoy a breath of spring during a visit beneath a magnolia tree at the UW Arboretum in Madison, Wis. Monday, May 9, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Umalkher Samatar, center, plays with daughters Siham Ali, left, and Zubeida Ali during a party Saturday celebrating Eid al-Fitr at McGaw Park in Fitchburg. The holiday of Eid marks the end of Ramadan. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Lottie Stenjem arranges an assortment of flowers to put into vases that will be shipped out to retailers, at ERI Floral in Stoughton, Wis., Monday, May 2, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Chris Wallom, a facilities worker with the Wisconsin Department of Administration, harvests tulips from the grounds of the Wisconsin State Capitol as workers prepare the beds for incoming arrays of annuals in Madison, Wis. Monday, May 16, 2022. Each spring, following the short-lived growth period for the flowers, workers dig up the bulbs and make them available on a first-come, first-serve basis to residents looking to enhance their own properties for the following year. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Uri Andrews, of Middleton, holds up one of his 4-year-old twins, Benjamin, with Rafael, 2, bottom, to catch a whiff of the corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum, that bloomed after reaching a heigh of just under 68-inches, at Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ Bolz Conservatory in Madison, Wis., Thursday, May 5, 2022. The plant, which was a donation from UW-Madison’s D.C. Smith Greenhouse in 2006, last bloomed in 2010 to a height of 6-feet. Corpse flowers bloom four to five times on average during their 40-year lifespan. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Eva Theyerl, granddaughter of library aid Roberta Ryskoski, takes a nap at the Brandon Public Library in Brandon, Wis., Tuesday, May 3, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Genevieve Bouska, left, and Lulu Jaeckel, both seniors at West High School, relax in hammocks during an afternoon visit to Vilas Park in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, May 11, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Returning to the region during a seasonal migration, several great egrets share the shoreline of Wingra Creek as a light rain shower falls in Madison, Wis. Tuesday, May 3, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Looking forward to the birth of their second child in July, Aws Albarghouthi captures photographs of his wife, Maria Zarzalejo, during an afternoon visit to Vilas Park in Madison, Wis. Tuesday, May 17, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Brynn Wozniak and Ethan Cash, at right, both UW-Madison students, sit in the grass at Lisa Link Peace Park as they listen to the band LINE during the Madison Night Market in Madison, Wis., Thursday, May 12, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Continuing an annual tradition, graduates of UW-Madison pose for photos with the statue of Abraham Lincoln on Bascom Hill as they celebrate the conferring of their degrees on the campus in Madison, Wis. Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Enjoying an up-close look at the sculpture is School of Business graduate Danielle Lacke. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
UW-Madison graduating students, from left, Michael Walsh, Michael Burns, Jeremiah Clark and Noah Prudlo play a game of beer dice outside their fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi, before attending the spring commencement ceremony at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., Saturday, May 14, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Ke Thao and his 11-month-old son, Leo, share a fishing outing together from a pier at Vilas Park in Madison, Wis. Monday, May 23, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Students participate in a demonstration of infantry drills during Civil War Living History Days at the Milton House Museum in Milton, Wis., Friday, May 20, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Village of Lone Rock, Wis. worker Haydn Walsh organizes banners commemorating the military service careers of family members from the region as the village continues an annual tradition of honoring them with displays throughout the village from Memorial Day through July 4 Thursday, May 26, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Sisters, from left, Lydia Scovill and Charlette place flags at the gravesite of their great grandfather, who served as a Marine in World War II, at Roselawn Memorial Cemetery in Monona, Wis., Monday, May 30, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Visitors use a telescope, that was installed in 1879, to see the star Arcturus during one of the free public observing days at Washburn Observatory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, May 18, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Cyclists make their way into a 3/4-mile-long tunnel along the Elroy-Sparta State Trail near the village of Norwalk, Wis. Wednesday, May 11, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
Madison East’s Jonathon Quattrucci competes in the boys discus throw during a WIAA Division 1 Regional track meet at DeForest High School in DeForest, Wis., Monday, May 23, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Runners compete in the 100 meter dash prelims during the Capital Conference Championships at Lodi High School in Lodi, Wis., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Middleton’s Finn Patenaude celebrates his win in the 110-meter hurdles during the Big 8 conference meet at Monterey Stadium in Janesville, Wis., Friday, May 13, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Sun Prairie’s Miles Adkins celebrates clearing the bar in pole vault during the WIAA Division 1 Sectional in Sun Prairie, Wis., Thursday, May 26, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Wisconsin Heights Barneveld’s Lexi Pulcine, right, wins the 100 meter hurdles as Belleville’s Alexandra Atwell falls over the finish line during the Capital Conference Championships at Lodi High School in Lodi, Wis., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Wisconsin catcher Christaana Angelopulos tags out Michigan’s Lexie Blair at the Goodman Softball Complex in Madison, Wis., Friday, May 6, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Madison East High School students, including senior Harnish VanOers, center, freshman Carina Caspar, right, and sophomore Oscar Mora, at left, walk on East Washington Avenue to the state Capitol from school in support of immigrant rights to drivers licenses in Madison, Wis., Monday, May 2, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Demonstrators protest outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, May 3, 2022. A leaked draft opinion suggests the U.S. Supreme Court intends to overturn the 1973 case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL
Volunteers, from left, Mark Thomas, Alysha Clark, Joy Morgen, Anne Habel and Jered Hoff place tombstones along Atwood Avenue at Olbrich Park signifying the U.S. military lives lost since 2001, as part of the Veterans for Peace Memorial Mile display, in Madison, Wis., Saturday, May 28, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL
Alex Rose, left, and Jasmine Devant of Jefferson, Wis. take in the sunset from atop an historic Native American earthen platform mound at Aztalan State Park in Aztalan, Wis. Monday, May 16, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
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Covers energy and the environment for the Wisconsin State Journal. Rhymes with Lubbock. Contact him at 608-252-6146.
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The utilities, which have so far spent about $277 million on the project, say the price of steel has essentially doubled in the four years since construction costs were estimated, while the aluminum and steel wires have gone up 68%.

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Two Public Service Commissioners disagreed Thursday on whether the state’s largest utility acted legally when it blocked an Iowa solar company from leasing solar panels to the city of Milwaukee.

The bill 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.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday on behalf of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, argues the Public Service Commission has overstepped its authority by preventing non-utility companies from providing services such as financing.

Despite multiple attempts to deflect the issue to lawmakers, Wisconsin regulators are wrestling with the question again as part of a dispute between the state’s largest utility and an Iowa company that wants to lease solar panels to the city of Milwaukee.

The Public Service Commission voted 2-0 Thursday to allow the state’s largest utility to introduce evidence and arguments about who is considered a utility under state law — a question the commission has declined to address — as part of a related case.

Led by the conservative majority, the Public Service Commission declined Eagle Point Solar’s request to say its agreement with the city of Milwaukee does not make the company a public utility subject to regulation. 
The Commission did, however, agree to hold a hearing on whether We Energies can legally refuse to connect solar panels.
Alan Watson, left, and Tommy Olson of Midwest Solar Power install solar panels on a Monona home in October 2021. Solar advocates are asking Wisconsin utility regulators to bless a financing tool that could expand access to the technology.
Huebner
Cowles
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