Summit tackles state’s renewable energy issues

A panel of legislators at an energy summit in Madison said the state should work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue policy to boost renewable energy generation in the state and expressed frustration at the way utilities have met the state’s 10 percent renewable standard.

Legislation to increase the renewables mandate for utilities is a “non-starter” in the current political climate, said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point. Instead, she suggested legislators pursue less partisan policies such as increased incentives and changes in the way homeowners and businesses are paid for renewable energy they generate.

While he didn’t endorse increasing the renewables mandate, Sen. Dale Schultz, R- Richland Center, said increasing the amount of renewables the state generates should be a goal. He noted that utilities have met the state’s standard partly by importing hydroelectric power from Canada. While he said he is not against the practice, he would like to see more produced in the state.

“It concerns me we are buying power from another state when we can be generating it here,” Schultz said. “Intelligent societies and advanced societies are in a race to do what we are talking about here.”

But Schultz had praise for utilities like the Dairyland Power Cooperative and businesses like Organic Valley, Gundersen Health System and Epic Systems, which he said have provided leadership in renewable energy.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said the state should pursue a higher standard.

“Once you hit a goal it makes sense to start a new one,” Larson said. “If we don’t do that we fall further behind.”

He said utilities have been “hijacking the intent” of the renewables standard by buying hydro-power from Canada, instead of investing in wind and other facilities.

The RENEW Wisconsin Energy Policy Summit was held Friday at the Pyle Center on the UW-Madison campus. The summit included a series of presentations and panel discussions with renewable energy experts and stakeholders. Also invited to participate in the policy panel, which was moderated by DOA Deputy Secretary Chris Schoenherr, was DATCP Secretary Ben Brancel. An announcer said Brancel was unable to attend due to illness.

One policy that could gain traction is allowing for third-party ownership of renewable energy infrastructure. In third-party arrangements, investors install and maintain systems they own on the consumer’s property and sell power directly to the consumer.

While Schultz said the idea is “intriguing,” he said such policy would have to be pursued in a way that allays the fear of utilities, who he said not only produce power, but also maintain the grid.

Larson said he would like to see third-party ownership legislation move forward. He said the practice would help combat climate change, would not hamper economic growth, and would create jobs.

“It’s a win, win, win on all of those fronts,” Larson said.

Third-party ownership would result in a “solar boom” and increased economic growth, Shankland said, and would be something both homeowners and businesses would invest in.

Cost, however, looms as a major concern for consumers.

Larson said people in Wisconsin are not “thrilled” about paying more for power than those in neighboring states. But he said growth in renewables and increased rates are not necessarily correlated, and that states like Minnesota and Iowa that are expanding wind generation are seeing lower rates than Wisconsin.

“We should continue to pursue renewables so that rates can go down,” Larson said.

Shankland said it is not only important to look at the price of energy, but the value renewable energy provides overall.

She suggested Wisconsin follow Minnesota’s lead and bring stakeholders together to determine value consumers bring to the utility companies by generating their own power through solar.

Schultz said costs are a concern for consumers.

“I don’t think we can be oblivious to the fact that power is expensive now and it does matter to people,” Schultz said, “but I also think we need to remember what it was like when there were shortages and we weren’t prepared to even deliver power at any price.”

But he agreed that increased renewable use does not necessarily increase cost.

He said in advancing policy it is important to take into account the concerns of utilities, the need for sufficient power availability, potential economic benefits brought by entrepreneurs developing renewable energy systems and environmental benefits renewables can provide.

The key to bringing change, the panelists said, is through having conversations with neighbors, politicians and candidates from both sides of the aisle.

— By David A. Wise