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SOLAR FLARE-UP: Utility blocks Iowa firm from harnessing the sun in Milwaukee

Cody Van Ginkel, an electrician at Arch Electric, installs a solar-panel inverter at a maintenance building at Westlawn Gardens, a public-housing project in Milwaukee. The installation is a part of the city’s plan to get 25 percent of its energy from the Sun by 2025. (Photo courtesy of Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Cody Van Ginkel, an electrician at Arch Electric, installs a solar-panel inverter at a maintenance building at Westlawn Gardens, a public-housing project in Milwaukee. The installation is a part of the city’s plan to get 25 percent of its energy from the Sun by 2025. (Photo courtesy of Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Sarah Whites-Koditschek
Wisconsin Public Radio

As solar energy has become more popular and inexpensive, this once-fringe renewable source of power is now at the center of an energy turf war in Wisconsin.

In question is a project in which an Iowa-based renewables company wants to work with the city of Milwaukee to power seven municipal buildings with solar. Eagle Point Solar would help to finance the city’s project, taking advantage of federal tax breaks that local governments cannot claim.

Eagle Point is suing the public utility, We Energies, for refusing to connect a series of solar arrays to each other. We Energies says it is simply following the law, arguing Eagle Point would essentially be selling electricity to the city within We Energies’ service area, which the utility argued would be illegal.

“Assuming it’s safe, reliable and legal, we have no problem. It’s just when it is not a legal agreement, we obviously can’t connect that,” said the We Energies spokesman Brendan Conway.

Eagle Point also sued the Public Service Commission, which declined to take up its complaint against We Energies, also known as Wisconsin Electric Power Co., essentially ducking bigger questions over the extent to which utilities in Wisconsin can control the provision of solar energy.

“This case is very important and is being watched in other states,” said Brad Klein, a lawyer at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a legal-advocacy group in the Midwest. “The definition of ‘public utility’ is becoming more important as new technologies like solar emerge that allow customers and private businesses to assume roles that once could only be played by large monopoly utilities.”

Wisconsin is one of 15 states that have not clarified whether they will allow such third-party solar arrangements. Five states prohibit it, according to the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, a state-funded research group.

Advocates say a ruling in favor of Eagle Point could open the door for other such solar projects.

Wisconsin law preserves the rights of utilities to hold a monopoly on providing power to the public, and they are regulated by the Public Service Commission. The definition of what constitutes a public utility is at the crux of the Eagle Point lawsuit.

The solar company argues it is not a utility.

“Eagle Point will be providing power to only one customer and will not be holding itself out to the public as an electricity provider,” the company argued in the lawsuit, filed May 28 in Dane County Circuit Court.

Renewables advocates say We Energies’ ability to block competitors is hampering the growth of solar energy in a state already lagging behind its neighbors. Wisconsin ranks 41st nationally in solar-generating capacity, powering the equivalent of 10,599 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“I think it’s really important for state policy to help level the playing field and ensure that everybody has access to the benefits of solar technology, and third-party financing is a good example of that,” Klein said.

Renewable initiative hits roadblock

The city of Milwaukee wants, by 2025, to be getting 25 percent of its energy use from solar power. Less than half a percent of the city’s energy now comes from that source.

Erick Shambarger, director of environmental sustainability for Milwaukee, says the push toward solar came from residents.

“We are hearing from constituents that climate change is real. It presents real threats to Wisconsin,” Schambarger said.

The city wants to shift to solar by working with public utility-run programs as well as with companies like Eagle Point Solar, known as third parties, which offer financing for governments, nonprofit groups and other organizations that want to have small solar arrays.

Cody Van Ginkel, an electrician at Arch Electric, makes an inspection on Feb. 27 of rooftop solar panels he helped install on a maintenance building at Westlawn Gardens, a public-housing development in Milwaukee. Part of another city solar project stalled after the utility company We Energies refused to connect arrays on seven other city buildings to the electrical gird. That refusal is the subject of a lawsuit by Eagle Point Solar, which is working with the city on the project.

Cody Van Ginkel, an electrician at Arch Electric, makes an inspection on Feb. 27 of rooftop solar panels he helped install on a maintenance building at Westlawn Gardens, a public-housing development in Milwaukee. Part of another city solar project stalled after the utility company We Energies refused to connect arrays on seven other city buildings to the electrical gird. That refusal is the subject of a lawsuit by Eagle Point Solar, which is working with the city on the project. (Photo courtesy of Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

“Solar pays for itself in the long term, however it requires an initial investment that not everybody has the resources to make,” Shambarger said.

In Milwaukee, Eagle Point Solar plans to install, maintain and finance its own solar equipment, lowering the cost of the project by taking advantage of a 30% federal solar energy tax credit.

Milwaukee has put out a request for proposals for third-party financing to place solar panels on the roofs of several public buildings, including library branches, a police office and the Department of Public Works field headquarters.

Initially, Milwaukee would own 20 percent of the $1.9 million project and Eagle Point the remaining 80 percent, although the city would have the option to buy the rest over time. With the project, the city had expected to save $28,000 a year on its energy bills, according to Shambarger.

Eagle Point was poised to install the equipment late last year when it learned We Energies would not connect the solar arrays.

In response, the city has reduced the scope of its project and now has solar panels installed only on three buildings; the arrangement will now finance itself.

Meanwhile, the agreement with Eagle Point Solar is pending for the other four projects and now depends on the outcome of the lawsuit and other factors, including the size of tax credits, which are scheduled to start decreasing after 2019.

Eagle Point has filed a complaint against We Energies with the Public Service Commission, which declined to hear the matter. The company then filed the lawsuit in May. It is asking for the court to block We Energies and the Public Service Commission from interfering in the project and to award legal fees and damages for the stalled project in Milwaukee.

Disrupting the energy marketplace

Public utilities have historically been granted the exclusive right to provide electricity in Wisconsin. The courts have justified this as being in the public interest because energy is an “indispensable service,” according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center. The actions of public utilities and their rates are regulated by the PSC to protect consumers, who generally cannot choose their energy providers.

Eagle Point Solar and renewables advocates say it’s no longer in the public’s interest to restrict the energy market. Barry Shear, Eagle Point Solar CEO, says competition will make the industry more efficient.

“Every business, including utilities, has to adjust to changing technology and changing economic circumstances, and they’re just going to have to adapt their business models to accommodate customers who want to grow their own energy,” he said.

We Energies has primarily been a fossil fuel-fired energy generator. But this year, with the dropping costs of solar technology, it started a program called Solar Now, which is similar to what Eagle Point Solar is offering but distributes the responsibility of covering the cost of individual solar projects to all of its customers.

Bill Skewes, executive director of the Wisconsin Utilities Association, says utilities have an exclusive franchise for a good reason: They provide safe, reliable service and make a “reasonable” profit in exchange for having their activities and rates regulated by the state.

“It maintains a system where our energy is provided on a very reliable basis,” he said. “You can flip on the light and be sure it’s going to come on unless there’s a very dire emergency situation.”
Skewes says because the price of solar has dropped by as much as 90% in the past decade, utilities are moving to solar as fast as reasonably possible. And, he says, providing solar at the utility level is the least expensive way to do this.

“Activists never see things going fast enough for them,” Skewes said. “For the utilities, they have to move at the speed of value where it meets their customer needs and it practically can be accomplished.”

Advocate: Competition will boost solar

Michael Vickerman, policy director of the renewables advocacy group Renew Wisconsin says opening the market to more players will increase solar energy use in the state.

“Why would (We Energies) want to clamp down on this kind of financing arrangement? The motivation is simple, which is simply to discourage the customer from receiving electricity from another entity,” Vickerman said.

Eagle Point Solar, which has its headquarters in Dubuque, Iowa, undertook a project in Dubuque to install 836 solar panels to save roughly $3,500 a year in energy costs. The Iowa Utilities Board blocked the project. And just like in Wisconsin, Eagle Point Solar sued.

In 2014, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of the company, deciding that Eagle Point Solar had not acted as a public utility in its partnership with the city.

John Klostermann, Dubuque Public Works Director, says the deal has not been as lucrative as the city had foreseen, in part because the utility does not pay as much for any excess energy the city sends to the grid as it costs to generate it.

But there are other benefits. Klostermann estimates the system has kept nearly 2.2 million pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from being released into the air.

“There’s times that we spend more money than what we get paid for,” he said. “There’s other times it works out well for us.”

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