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Milwaukee Common Council Takes Up We Energies' Proposed Solar Fee

S Bence

The utility wants to add a surcharge for people who use solar. Alderman Tony Zielinski introduced a resolution to oppose the move Wednesday. 

We Energies' plan would boost its fixed charges from $9 to $16 a month and add a new fee for customers who have installed solar panels.

The Public Service Commission will decide on the matter by the end of the year, but Zielinski wants the city to exert influence.

The alderman lives in Bay View, just south of the wind turbine that generates power at the Port of Milwaukee. To his west on Kinnickinnic Avenue, Bay View is about to unveil a 32 foot combination public art / bus shelter. Its lighting will be fueled by solar panels.

Zielinski says We Energies’ proposed changes risks pushing Milwaukee a step backward.

“I have received emails, Facebook messages, calls from various constituents that have invested in solar power with the idea that in the long run that they’re going saving money, in addition to doing something that’s good for our economy and good for our environment. I mean they’re outraged,” Zielinski says.

Zielinski acknowledges the Common Council doesn’t have a vote on the proposed rate increase. So his proposal calls on the Governor for assistance.

“This has to get approved by the Public Service Commission. Now, Governor Walker has appointed two of the three people on the Public Service Commission,” Zielinski says. "So my resolution is calling on the Governor to use his influence to help ensure two of the three Public Service Commissioners do not support this plan."

From We Energies’ perspective, the plan is a modest increase, according to spokesperson Jessica Williamson. Those funds, she says “are really going to help us continue to make some significant improvements or investments, to renew and modernize our systems. They’re going to allow us to meet new environmental standards and reduce operating costs for customers.”

Williamson says the projects range from replacing utility poles, to adding natural gas lines.

As for new fees for customers with solar installations, Williamson says, We Energies is unjustly being portrayed as anti-renewable.

“We recognize that more customers want to start generating their own energy and do so with renewable sources and we absolutely support that," Williamson says. "What we also support is fairness; fairness in rates, fairness in who pays for maintenance costs, fairness in how much customers who generate their own energy are compensated for the excess energy that they produce. But it can’t come at the financial burden of a customer who maybe can’t afford solar panels or the space, or frankly the interest in generating their own energy."

She says the cost of solar panels and their installation have dropped significantly. We Energies proposed rate formula spreads out the cost more evenly to all customers.

The Public Service Commission will hold two hearings on the subject in Milwaukee in October.

Update: At its meeting, the Milwaukee Common Council voted to refer the resolution to the judiciary committee for further review at its September 15 meeting. 

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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