Wisconsin lawmakers are in the driver’s seat to expand solar power construction but stuck in neutral over whether the state or utilities should pay for the projects.
“It’s a numbers game that we still have to come up with the answer for,” said state Rep. Jim Soletski, D-Green Bay. “Is it reasonable for us to continue making utilities foot the bill? This will be showing up in rates somewhere. Or is it better for us to subsidize solar programs?”
Whatever the decision, it must come soon, said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit clean energy group based in Madison.
“If they want to see more solar installation,” he said, “then lawmakers are going to have to require utilities to establish higher buyback rates.”
Customer incentive programs for solar installation expire next year at Wisconsin utilities We Energies, Wisconsin Power & Light Co. and Wisconsin Public Service Corp. We Energies, for example, offers multiple programs for customers interested in generating solar power. In one program, the utility buys back energy generated from solar panels at a rate of 75 cents per kilowatt hour for the first year.
Company spokesman Brian Manthey said the program, which cost the utility $600,000 since March, has eased customers’ solar installation costs. But the program was so popular that We Energies would need to raise rates for all customers in order to continue it, he said. If the state orders a program continuation, he said, utilities must determine how to balance those costs with other renewable energy projects.
Utilities need PSC approval to raise rates.
And, Manthey said, a state-mandated focus on solar energy could neglect other promising sources as utilities scramble to meet the state’s goal of producing 10 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2015.
“The mandate is such a challenge already,” he said. “If you make us focus on building solar instead of building a wind farm that can produce 162 megawatts of energy, you’re just going to see higher costs for less energy.
“I don’t even know that you could put up enough panels to generate what a large wind farm could.”
Despite the popularity of solar incentives, Manthey said, the utility’s resulting solar power output is minimal.
We Energies, he said, remains well behind a commitment it made last year to generate 12 megawatts of solar energy by 2015.
Soletski said the technology needs time to grow, and the Legislature wants to avoid raising consumers’ utility rates.
“It’s not like everybody is flush with cash at the moment,” he said. “Everyone’s looking at where the next nickel comes from.”
The Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming recommended utilities continue programs offering buyback incentives for customers, but Soletski said the lawmakers drafting a bill based on those recommendations are grappling with where to place the financial burden.
Still, hesitancy by the state Legislature could slow momentum for solar power, Vickerman said. Legislative action does not have to mean moving away from wind or biomass development, he said, but it cannot mean that solar drops out of the renewable mix.
That’s the risk lawmakers take if they remain on the fence, he said.
“If you offer no incentive,” Vickerman said, “you won’t see any solar installations in Wisconsin.”