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Opposition mounts to We Energies’ proposed fee on solar customers

Workers install solar panels atop the roof of the Ozaukee County Transit Services building in Port Washington in November 2015. We Energies, the utility company that provides electricity to Ozaukee County and surrounding places, has proposed new solar charges that some fear will make solar power too expensive for many. Various groups gather in Milwaukee on Thursday to protest We Energies’ plans. (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Workers install solar panels atop the roof of the Ozaukee County Transit Services building in Port Washington in November 2015. We Energies, the utility company that provides electricity to Ozaukee County and surrounding places, has proposed new solar charges that some fear will make solar power too expensive for many. Various groups gather in Milwaukee on Thursday to protest We Energies’ plans. (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

The new solar array that Jerry Erjavec installed on his garage at his home finally began to live up to its promise last month after a brutal winter and tepid spring.

Erjavic first got his 24-panel, 6.7 kilowatt solar system up and running last December, after learning of a colleague’s solar array and wondering if he could put up a similar system on the house he had bought in Campbellsport three years before. His new solar system generated enough power in May to slash $110 off his power bill that month — a big improvement from the $80 he had saved a month on average during the long winter.

Yet even as Erjavic’s system was running full throttle, We Energies was introducing a plan to increase costs on customers like him who offset their utility bill with solar power.

“You get penalized for reducing your energy consumption, is what it comes down to,” Erjavic said.

On May 3, We Energies filed a request seeking the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s permission to levy a new fee on customers who use solar equipment. If approved, customers like Erjavic would pay $3.53 a month for every kilowatt their systems have the capacity to generate, starting on Jan. 1, 2021. Erjavic figures the new rule would cost him about $23 a month, reducing his average monthly energy savings by about 25%.

Erjavic and a group of renewable-energy advocates gathered on Thursday at Bounce Milwaukee, a business powered partly by renewable energy, to express concerns about We Energies’ proposal. Various organizations, including the Alliance for Solar Choice, an industry group backed by solar companies, and the green-energy advocacy group Renew Wisconsin have expressed frustration over the utility’s plans. Critics say the new fee would punish those who are willing to invest in renewable energy.

“One of the most profitable companies in the state is looking to soak up money from those who are looking to soak up the sun,” State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said during the event. “We can’t allow that.”

The fee proposal is not necessarily new, though. We Energies tried in 2014 to impose a similar charge on its cus tomers, winning the approval of Wisconsin regulators only to be later overturned in a legal challenge.

We Energies, meanwhile, argues its proposed fee is needed to ensure customers who have solar arrays are paying their fair share for the use of the electrical grid. The utility contends that the 700-some solar customers in its territory are inadvertently shifting the cost of maintaining the electrical grid to those who do not generate their own power. Brendan Conway, a We Energies spokesman, said the proposed charge is meant to eliminate this shift in costs.

“I don’t know if they don’t understand that or they just don’t care,” he said. “If they don’t pay it, their neighbors are paying. We fully support solar. We just can’t support unfairly shifting cost to customers.”

The new fee comes as the utility is raising its so-called fixed charges on all customers from $16 to $17.65 a month. That fee is the amount customers pay regardless of how much power they use in a given month.

Mike Cornell, director of business development at Arch Electric, said We Energies’ proposal has raised concerns among some private customers who have been considering solar projects. He predicted the utility’s latest fee proposal would become the subject of even more controversy than the company’s previous attempt, in 2014, at something similar.

“This creates another logistical obstacle that we have no control over,” Cornell said. “Last time they did this there was only a small group of people who were interested in solar. That group has probably expanded tenfold by now.”

Cornell said although the proposed won’t wipe out rapidly rising demand for private solar installations, it has caused some customers to abandon their plans altogether. And “dozens” more, he said, have put their plans on hold.

“The residential folks are waffling in some cases” Cornell said. “Had this news not come out, they’d already been engaged and have their system put on. We haven’t changed our business model or approach at all. (We Energies) have.”

About Nate Beck

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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