Wisconsin utility decision could spur more rooftop solar development  

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The Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) late last week ruled that a bid from a Stevens Point, Wisconsin family to access electricity from an 8 kW rooftop solar system would not conflict with a legacy public utility law.

On December 1 the PSC voted 2-1 in a Declaratory Ruling to uphold a petition filed in May 2022 by Vote Solar, a national solar advocacy group, on behalf of the family, one of its members.

The ruling clears the way for the family to purchase solar power under contract with third-party installer Northwind Renewable Energy Cooperative instead of the family purchasing the system and absorbing the costs upfront.

Existing Wisconsin law does not prohibit third-party ownership of residential generating equipment, however, it does not expressly sanction this type of third-party arrangement either.

In testimony and briefs opposing Vote Solar’s petition, electric providers argued that any provision of electricity to the family, whether under a lease or a power purchase agreement, would automatically make Northwind a public utility operating illegally in another utility’s territory.

Wisconsin utilities have in recent years denied residential PV interconnection to customers. Vote Solar felt it necessary to request a Declaratory Ruling on behalf of the family to clarify that the family was not “the public” and Northwind was not a public utility.

“The utility position that two homes with the same equipment, installed the same way, connected to the same utility—with absolutely no functional difference—should be categorized differently simply because of the way the system is financed defies logic and common sense,” said Kurt Reinhold, president and managing director of Legacy Solar Cooperative.

“If a family or an institution decides they want to use solar power to meet some of their power and energy needs, and rely less on fossil fuels, and lower their electric bills in the process, then no utility or regulatory authority should impinge upon the rights of the customer to do that,” Reinhold said.

Affirming the legality of the Wisconsin family’s PV project will not lead to dismantling Wisconsin’s regulatory utility model, as demonstrated in neighboring states like Iowa.

“Back in 2014, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of a similar petition filed by a local solar contractor, affirming the legality of third-party-owned generation serving host customers. That decision removed a significant economic barrier that kept nonprofit entities from pursuing onsite solar power,” said Michael Vickerman, policy director of RENEW Wisconsin.

Several of those who commented in the Vote Solar docket referenced a number of innovative clean energy projects that have used third-party financing. Among those is Bad River Tribe’s Ishkonige Nawadide solar microgrid project, commissioned in 2021, consisting of 524 kW of solar and 1,000 kWh of storage capacity.

“As a clean energy company based in Menasha, we recently completed a microgrid project for the Bad River Tribe using TPF [third party financing], sometimes referred to as an energy-as-a-service model,” said Dan Nordloh, senior vice president and general manager of EnTech Solutions.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Wisconsin is ranked the number 28 state in the U.S. for solar development, with 861 MW cumulative installations through Q2 22.  The state employs 2,942 solar industry workers and has a sizable 4.9 GW project development pipeline over the next five years.

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