Solar Industry Fights Wisconsin Tax Hikes

     MADISON (CN) – New Wisconsin taxes on solar power will discourage consumers from going green, solar-energy advocates claim in court.
     Renew Wisconsin, which represents four or five dozen of the state’s renewable-energy companies, filed its petition on Jan. 22 with California-based The Alliance for Solar Choice, founded by the largest rooftop solar installation and ownership companies in the United States.
     The filing seeks review by the Dane County Circuit Court of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin’s decision to let WEPCo, short for the Wisconsin Electric Power Co., to charge a tariff based on the capacity of customer-controlled energy generators, particularly solar and wind energy.
     “The result discriminates against and discourages clean, renewable, self-sufficient generation from consumer-sited solar generation, which represents only .036 percent of WEPCo’s customers,” the petition states.
     Commissioner Eric Callisto was the lone dissent in the Dec. 23 final decision on consumer rate increases. The new taxes are set to go into effect in 2016.
     Since solar customers bypass some fixed costs of providing power that are collected as a variable charge, the new taxes attempt to make up the difference, in part, with a so-called “demand charge” on new solar customers, according to testimony by S.J. Singletary, an energy policy analyst with the commission.
     Singletary advised that such important costs should not be recouped arbitrarily.
     “I have concerns that the capacity-demand charge is designed in such a way that the customer is charged, not for actual electric utility usage, but instead a speculative, theoretical amount,” he testified, according to commission records.
     The complaint notes that Commissioner Callisto agreed with Singletary, arguing that WEPCo failed to provide evidence that the “name plate” capacity of generators corresponds to the actual amount of energy being used.
     It also says WEPCo is discriminating against solar customers with the new charges, considering it does not levy charges against customers who reduce their electricity purchases in other ways.
     Commissioner Ellen Nowak’s impartiality allegedly leaves something to desire as well.
     “While she may not have decided exactly what the newly restructured rates should be, Commissioner Nowak’s public statements prior to her decision in this proceeding demonstrate she had predetermined to revise traditional rate structures,” the complaint states.
     As part of the rate increase, the commission required measuring and comparing output with generator capacity, and refunding any cost difference at the end of 2016.
     For its part, the commission released only a brief statement on the lawsuit.
     “The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin stands by its decision and will vigorously defend it in court,” spokesman Nathan Conrad said.
     Conrad would not specify the total money at stake, saying only that the amount was “not giant,” considering the fraction of a percent of WEPCo customers who generate their own electricity.
     Tyler Huebner, Renew Wisconsin’s executive director, said new customers will pay an additional $20 to $30 per month in 2016, while existing customers’ rates will go up in 10 years.
     This represents a 30 percent yearly cost increase, Huebner said, noting that this may be enough to discourage people from switching to solar.
     Since there is a study in evidence that shows solar customers saved money for all energy consumers, Huebner said there should be no additional charges for customers who generate their own power.
     “That analysis was not looked at at all,” Huebner said. “Even though it was a robust analysis, it was completely disregarded, and so that’s the type of analysis that needs to happen. That’s really what’s going on in other states that are serious about looking at solar as an option.”
     The case in Dane County Circuit Court is assigned to Judge John Albert.
     David Bender with McGillivray Westerberg & Bender represents the challengers.

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