A big storm is brewing in Wisconsin. We’re not talking snow or rain — this one is about the sun.

An attack on solar

You might not expect a state with just a few hundred solar installations to become the next solar battleground. But utility We Energies is attempting an attack on solar — and on all its electric customers — so extreme that it’s making headlines around the country.

Here’s what We Energies has proposed:

  • Increase the fixed cost for all residential and small commercial customers 75%, from $9 a month to $16 a month.
  • Reduce the variable rate for all customers from $0.139/kwh to $0.1349/kwh.
  • Change net metering from annual to monthly netting, and greatly reduce the price credited for clean energy systems from the retail rate of 14 cents/kwh to the “avoided cost” rate, about 3 cents/kwh.
  • Impose a new charge on clean energy system owners of $3.80 per kW per month.
  • Ban third-party ownership for solar and wind systems.

As in other states, the utility is arguing that solar customers aren’t paying their fare share to maintain the grid. Given how few solar customers the state has, they are hardly a drain on resources. However, while We Energies says it supports renewable energy, its actions indicate that it’s worried that solar will take off in Wisconsin as it has in other states.

Implications

The We Energies plan would put a major damper on solar in the state. The charge of $3.80 per kW each month adds up to about $220 a year for a 5 kW system. We’ve seen in Arizona that even a small charge of $5 a month can affect solar uptake. This much bigger fee would certainly deter potential solar customers — not to mention unfairly penalize those who already have solar. And that’s not even accounting for the huge cut in the net metering rate that the utility is proposing.

Then there’s the ban on third-party ownership — which, while it may be giving way just a bit to ownership via loans, has been a major factor in spreading solar around the country. States without it have much less residential solar, and it can also be key in helping small businesses, nonprofits, and schools go solar.

Bryan Miller, co-chair of The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) and Vice President of Public Policy and Power Markets for Sunrun, told us, “We’ve seen anti-solar proposals from monopolists around the country, but nothing this extreme. This would make Wisconsin the most anti-solar state in the country.”

Those are the anticipated effects just on solar in the state. Another concern is that the proposal would discourage energy conservation. It would also penalize those who have already made efforts to lower their energy use — and their power bills.

Opposition

Reactions, not surprisingly, have been strong. What’s striking is the range of parties speaking out against the proposal.

One is, of course, TASC, which is intervening in the case despite an attempt by We Energies to prevent it from doing so. TASC spokesperson Gracie Walovich pointed out another issue in the case: “To add insult to injury, We Energies is executing these attacks while ​also ​pursuing a ​$9.1 billion ​merger with Integrys​ to expand its monopoly​. The solar attacks raise serious concerns about whether We Energies has its customers’ best interests in mind, and whether they can be trusted to expand their monopoly.” ​

Public opposition to the proposal has been overwhelming. Although the We Energies territory has only 467 net metering customers, over 5​000 people have signed an online petition and over 500 have gone to the greater trouble of submitting public comments. At a press event last Monday outside the We Energies headquarters in Milwaukee, about 50 people showed up to stand for solar choice in the state — despite rainy weather.

The AARP has spoken out against the proposal. This is significant because seniors on a fixed income would be adversely affected by the plan, whether or not they have solar. They tend to be low energy users, so the higher fixed rates would be hard on them. Seniors also trying to save with solar would be hit with a double whammy.

In addition to individuals and citizen groups, businesses throughout Wisconsin have weighed in against the proposal — including Johnson Controls, the state’s largest business.

Where it gets even more interesting is with the entrance into the fray by Debbie Dooley, national coordinator with the Tea Party Patriots in Georgia. Some tea party members like her have become involved in supporting solar as a free-market and energy freedom issue. Dooley, who traveled to Wisconsin to stand for solar and oppose the We Energies plan, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “If you’re a free-market conservative, you don’t protect monopolies from competition.”

Miller pointed out that even an expert from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) has recommended not adopting the proposal. “The commission’s pro-business reputation is at stake in this decision,” he told us. “It’s not just the solar industry that’s weighed in against it, but also the state’s largest company and the commission’s own expert.”

He added that the proposed Integrys merger “is one of the largest in American history. This is bullying by an enormous monopoly.” The rate change proposal, he noted, will be front and center in the merger case.

Next steps

The We Energies proposal is far from a done deal. Next week a hearing is scheduled for the parties, and on September 23 the Milwaukee Common Council will vote on a resolution calling on the governor to use his influence to ensure the PSC does not support the plan. The public will have a chance to voice their views on October 8, after which the PSC is set to come up with a decision matrix on October 17. The PSC is expected to make a decision by the end of the year.

The fight against the proposal is going strong. It’s heartening to see such a long and diverse list of solar supporters seeking to stop the We Energies proposal. It’s also disconcerting to see such an extreme plan proposed in the first place.

Attacks on solar like this go against what Americans want. A recent bipartisan poll in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states echoed others around the country, with 93% of those polled saying that home and business owners should have the right to install solar and pay for it in the way they choose.

But We Energies seems to be ignoring this fact. As Dooley told ThinkProgress, “It’s very clear they’re not looking out for the best interest of their customers, they’re looking out for the best interest of their stockholders.”

Some utilities have been forward-thinking and embraced solar. It’s time for We Energies and others to join them. It’s time for all utilities to wake up to the reality that solar is a force that can’t be stopped.

*Image of a solar farm in Wisconsin. Source: Convergence Energy.