Suit Claims Wisconsin Agency Discriminates Against Customer-Generated Energy

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Renewable-energy advocates filed a lawsuit against Wisconsin regulators Thursday, claiming it is shorting utility customers producing energy from renewable sources for the juice they sell back to the state’s major utility company and giving preferential pricing to that monopoly for its own power.

The 13-page petition for judicial review was filed in Dane County Circuit Court by Madison-based environmental advocates Renew Wisconsin along with the Madison branches of the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Sierra Club, as well as Oakland-based Vote Solar.

The groups claim that “federal and state law prohibits discriminatory treatment of renewable energy generation owned by customers of a monopoly utility, compared to how the monopoly utility’s generation is treated.”

“The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin,” the petition continues, “on a vote of two-to-one, established prices for electricity generated by non-utility energy facilities (such as rooftop solar) that are significantly lower than the effective price allowed for equivalent electricity from utility-owned generation. That decision violates the law.”

Solar PV modules mounted on a rooftop.

The agency’s decision established a pricing structure laid out in four new tariffs which the Wisconsin Electric Power Company, which operates as We Energies in the area, pays for electricity generated by “customers who own small, renewable energy generators” based on average short-term market prices, plus a flat kilowatt per hour transmission credit and possible adjustments for line losses.

The nonprofits are asking the court to review, vacate and remand the agency’s decision as being based on a discriminatory interpretation of the law, order fair interim rates that take into account all the costs and value associated with customer-generated energy and make We Energies implement fair pricing policies for purchasing clean electricity from the homes, farms and businesses which produce it.

The groups are represented by David Bender with environmental advocacy group Earthjustice’s Madison branch and Bradley Klein with the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s branch in Chicago.

The proposal for the pricing structure was originally brought to the table by We Energies and approved by the agency in December, with agency chairperson Rebecca Valcq being the only commissioner to dissent and argue for what the nonprofits say is just compensation.

Commissioners of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission are appointed by the governor. Aside from Valcq, who was appointed chairperson by Governor Tony Evers in 2019, Mike Huebsch and Ellen Nowak round out the three-person commission, the latter two having been appointed by former Governor Scott Walker in 2015 and 2011, respectively.

Elizabeth Ward, director of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin Chapter, tipped her hat to Valcq for her fairness in a press release Thursday, saying “the sun shines and the wind blows the same for everyone. It doesn’t favor monopoly utilities over the hardworking Wisconsinites who invest their own money in solar and wind.”

In that same release, Renew Wisconsin’s executive director Tyler Huebner made clear that “renewable energy is not an either or proposition.”

Huebner offered that “this is about basic fairness: there needs to be a level playing field where customer renewable energy investments get the same opportunities as utility-scale power plants.”

Huebner said the robust market and clean energy jobs this basic fairness creates benefits all Wisconsinites with homegrown clean energy and gives farmers the ability to feasibly lease land for renewable energy to create additional cash flows.

Bender offered in the same release that “the law is crystal clear that electrons from monopoly utilities cannot be favored over those from your and my rooftop solar.”

For his part, Klein lambasted We Energies for self-dealing with approved rates that benefited their own programs and the regulatory agency for signing off on utility company’s inequitable proposal.

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission could not be reached for comment after hours Thursday.

We Energies spokesperson Brendan Conway said Thursday, “We support the commission’s decision. Their final order protects customers and allows us to continue on a path to a cleaner energy future that is safe, reliable and affordable.”

We Energies operates its brand under the umbrella of the larger WEC Energy Group, a massive conglomerate which services electricity and natural gas to 4.5 million customers across Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota.

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