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Milwaukee-Area Solar Advocates Support Iowa Firm In Dispute With WE Energies

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After a three year battle between solar energy advocates and WE Energies, a ruling on whether an Iowa based solar energy company will be allowed to install and lease solar panels on public buildings in Milwaukee is expected this spring.

A three-year battle between solar energy advocates and WE Energies is back before the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, and the state regulatory agency also known as the PSC, wants to hear your thoughts by Tuesday night.

WE Energies, based in Milwaukee, has been blocking an Iowa company, Eagle Point Solar, from going ahead with a plan to install and interconnect its solar panels on about a half-dozen buildings owned by the city of Milwaukee, leasing the panels to the city. WE Energies says Eagle Point would be unlawfully acting as a public utility. 

Renewable energy advocates argue the Iowa firm's proposal is legal because the Eagle Point would provide third party financing and not act as a public utility.

During a hearing Feb. 17, Susan Modder of Milwaukee urged the PSC to side with Eagle Point. Modder said third party financing would allow more homeowners and nonprofits to have solar rooftops. 

"WE Energies needs to encourage, not discourage, their customers to reduce their contribution to carbon emissions through the use clean solar power,” she said.

Modder said over half the states allow third party financing. Tom Rutkowski has promoted homeowner group buys of solar in Racine, but said interest partly dwindled when low-income people found out the projects can cost more than $10,000.

"Ending with a homogenous group in terms of income and race. Only a limited group of people could share in the long-term benefits of owning their own system, because there was no financing mechanism that would allow them to afford that initial cost of an installation,” Rutkowski said.

WE Energies declined an interview for this story. But company spokesperson Brendan Conway sent this written statement to WUWM: “Wisconsin state law is clear, if anyone sells electricity to our customers, they should be viewed as a public utility and should be registered as such. In Eagle Point’s case, because we already provide retail electric service to the city, Wisconsin law prohibits Eagle Point from doing so. Not only is the agreement illegal, it shifts costs to customers who are paying for the infrastructure that provides service when needed and would allow some customers to benefit from our system without paying for a portion of it.”

The PSC is accepting written comments on the dispute through Tuesday, through the mail or the PSC's website.  A ruling is expected this spring, though the Wisconsin State Journal has reported it's not clear if all three commissioners will take part, due to past connections with the case.

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