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Saturday, February 24, 2024
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A solar panel is photographed in front of the Wisconsin Capitol building. Solar panels power Madison B-Cycle stations across the city, including a station in front of the state Capitol.

Republican state lawmakers reintroduce legislation to expand community solar

The bill, which would allow Wisconsinites to participate in privately developed community solar projects, was stonewalled during the state Legislature’s previous session.

Wisconsin Republicans reintroduced a bill that would enable residents to participate in community solar projects from developers independent of utility companies.

Community solar allows people who cannot invest in solar generation units for their own properties — such as renters or those who lack a south-facing roof — to invest in off-site solar projects in their community. They then receive a discount on their utility bills in exchange for adding energy into the grid.

Republican lawmakers said the bill would create local jobs and drive innovation in the state while promoting renewable energy at a press conference Tuesday.

“It will spur competition, economic growth and ultimately lead to more favorable rates for Wisconsin ratepayers which is something we dearly need in the state of Wisconsin," said Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville). 

Current state law provides no mechanism for reimbursing community solar investors for their investments through credits on their utility bills. 

In a memo circulated to lawmakers, the Wisconsin Utilities Association and other entities stated their opposition to the bill. The utilities claimed they are already adding solar installations and other renewable energy systems into Wisconsin’s power grid.

“The bill would chiefly benefit the out-of-state community solar developers at the expense of the ‘nonsubscribing’ customers,” the memo reads. “Meanwhile, the developers would benefit from using Wisconsin’s electric grid with no obligation to maintain service and reliability, to prove the generating asset is necessary or cost effective or to be a provider of last resort as Wisconsin’s utilities are required to do.”

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Sen. Duey Stroebel addresses reporters at a press conference announcing new community solar legislation on Thursday, March 23, 2023.

Weighing reliability against demand for fewer fossil fuels

Twenty states currently have mechanisms for enabling community solar projects, according to the lawmakers. One of these states is Minnesota, which has added 848 megawatts of solar production through community solar projects since 2014. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates Minnesota’s community solar programs save the state’s utility customers about $11 million annually.

Energy production involves a delicate balance between production and demand, according to utility professionals. Regulatory agencies, like Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission, set standards for utility companies to meet which account for unpredictable shifts in utility demands.

Community solar installations could introduce more uncertainty for regulators, utility companies said. But advocates point to larger benefits.

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“The more states can diversify their fuel mix, the better. That includes adding more solar, but it also includes the different sizes of these projects,” Matt Hargarten, vice president of campaigns for Coalition for Community Solar Access, told The Daily Cardinal. 

“If you have just a couple of giant utility-scale projects that the grid becomes more prone to risk events — weather events, cyberattacks, things of that nature,” Hargarten added. “But when you distribute the resources more… you spread that risk out and you diversify the fuel mix so you are less prone to blackouts.”

In Wisconsin, utility companies are allowed to act as a private company while also adhering to strict regulations that make them vulnerable to public scrutiny and regulatory changes. 

The companies argue community solar projects would introduce more players into the energy landscape while allowing community solar developers to operate outside the tightly controlled regulatory environment. 

However, Stroebel said Tuesday community solar projects would constitute a small fraction of Wisconsin’s overall energy production. He accused energy companies of “overreacting” to the proposed changes.

“These decisions will be governed by the Public Service Commission,” Stroebel told The Daily Cardinal following the press conference. “They have, in the past, always determined what our monopolized utilities do, and they will continue [to] in the future to make sure it’s an equitable and fair arrangement for all.”

Stroebel introduced similar legislation in 2021 that failed to advance beyond the Senate Committee on Utilities, Technology and Telecommunications. Opposition to that bill expressed concern the bill would hike costs for energy customers not participating in community solar, but making cost assumptions about the program is “premature,” Hargarten said.

“That will happen once the bill gets legislated,” he said. “Once the legislation is done, the commission will set those rates, so we’re definitely putting the cart before the horse if we talk about cost.”

Small farms, generational landowners a leading concern for coalition members

One major concern bill supporters hope this legislation will address is the ability for small farmers to retain their land while fending off threats from increased costs, decreased sales and offers to sell their land to larger entities who may use it for non-farming purposes.

“I toured a location in Outagamie County where a family has been approached to be leased out to one of these groups, and they want to do it,” Rep. Rob Brooks (R-Saukville) told The Daily Cardinal following the press conference. “The farm has been in the family for generations, but they can’t make enough [money] because it’s pretty small. If they don’t make some additional income some way, they’re going to lose their family place.”

Small-scale community solar facilities offer a different option for farmers who might not want to hand a solar company their entire farm, said Hargarten. Lawmakers at Wednesday’s press conference explained current projects can require up to 1000 acres and restrict farmers’ ability to continue traditional farming operations on their land.

Additionally, community solar projects would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the governing body of the municipality they are installed in under Republicans’ bill, according to the legislation’s authors.

“With the large scale solar projects, locals have no input whatsoever. In [community solar], not only will it be a majority but it’s gonna require a supermajority,” Stroebel said. “There’s going to be more community buy-in, and that’s really what you want.”

Hargarten believes community solar proponents may have finally built a coalition of support to get the legislation passed. Gov. Tony Evers’ Clean Power Plan, introduced last April, also called for expansion of community solar.

“We’re really excited about momentum in the state. The bill sponsors are bringing a lot of energy to the push,” Hargarten said. “The Farm Bureau just announced their support of it and that’s a new voice from the last time. We think there’s a really good chance [the legislation] could go through, and we encourage other voices out there to come and join the fight.”

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