PUC tells co-op to refund wind/solar fee

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barn with wind turbinesYesterday, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission sided with Fresh Energy and its partner public interest non-profits by rejecting a special fee People’s Electric Cooperative was charging consumers who chose to generate their own wind and solar power.  The Commission further agreed to investigate similar fees by other Minnesota utilities that single-out consumers with renewable systems.

The dispute came to the Commission after Allen Miller, a People’s customer with a small wind system on his farm, questioned why his co-op put a new $5 per month charge on his bill ─ and all other Peoples’ renewable-customer bills ─ without any notice.

Special fees for self-generating consumers have been an emerging tactic across the country for utilities attempting to make it more expensive for their consumers to “go solar” (or wind in this case).  Aside from discouraging consumers who want the option to produce their own energy, fees that single-out renewable-generating consumers simply are not allowed under Minnesota’s self-generation law.

Our laws are designed to help Minnesotans self-generate renewable energy and clearly outline how the relationship between customer and utility are meant to play out ─ including what those consumers have to pay for utility services and what those consumers should receive for the services they provide to the whole electricity system.  The Commission ultimately agreed that any fees on self-generating consumers must be justified under this law and that the fee imposed by People’s was not.

Through this dispute, renewable-customer fees from other Minnesota utilities also came to light. One particular customer in Connexus Energy territory told the Commission that his co-op had a monthly charge on his bill for his solar system. Thankfully, the Commission adopted our recommendation that all special monthly fees for renewable-consumers statewide should be identified and properly justified by the utilities. This is an important step to make sure consumers who are investing their own money in homegrown clean energy aren’t being penalized.

One wrinkle to this story is that legislation passed just this year allows for co-op utilities to possibly institute special fees for solar and wind producers under limited circumstances. Yesterday’s decision was a clear signal that the Commission will place real scrutiny on any new fees proposed by these utilities.

Rather than making things harder for farmers like Mr. Miller, Minnesota should focus on removing barriers for consumers who want to install homegrown clean energy. “When my grandsons ask me, ‘Granddad, what did you do to help when our climate was changing?’ I will be able to look them in the eye and say, ‘I did everything I could.’ ”


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