Show me the money: why real data is so important for solar discussions

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UPDATE: As reported in Midwest Energy News, a Wisconsin court has overturned fees on solar customers in We Energies’ service territory.

The Wisconsin Judge’s rejection of We Energies’ special fee just for solar customers, follows a decision from this past winter when a similar solar fee from a Green Bay utility was also rejected.  In Minnesota, the Public Utilities Commission also rejected a Minnesota utility’s distributed generation fee where Fresh Energy led the charge.  All in all, the message to utilities is clear: solar policies should be based on real data analysis.

February 12, 2015 | As the costs of solar panels continue to drop, businesses are finding innovative ways to set up financing that works for consumers of all incomes who might be interested in going solar. Things like zero-down payment and on-bill financing have made it easier than ever for families, businesses, and community organizations to produce their own home grown energy.

Yet some utilities have continued to claim that even a handful of solar panels on one individual home can throw the finances of their entire customer base out of balance. Wisconsin utilities have been some of the most vocal in this group. As a recent Wisconsin court case found, their argument didn’t exactly hold water.

As the Journal Sentinel reported on February 9, “Dane County Circuit Court Judge Rhonda Lanford said the PSC and the Green Bay utility had failed to show that solar customers were being subsidized by other ratepayers.” Tyler Huebner of RENEW Wisconsin agreed, telling Wisconsin Public Radio, “you can’t just make this claim without providing some spreadsheets, some detailed analysis of how this [alleged] subsidy actually works.”

In other words, if you’re claiming that solar customers are shifting costs onto other customers, you need to demonstrate that that shift is actually taking place – something utilities have been routinely ignoring. These claims aren’t only being made in the Midwest. They’re being made by utilities across the country. Yet time and time again, even in conservative states such as Nevada, Mississippi, Utah, and Louisiana, regulators have concluded that the concerns about cost shifting are, at best, premature and, at worst, simply not true.

New solar development helps lower energy bills and creates good paying jobs. But it also ensures that more and more of the $18 billion we currently spend to import our energy stays right here in Minnesota. We know about these benefits thanks to in-depth research that has been done by state agencies, regulatory bodies, and those in the electrical industry as a whole.

No project is perfect. You would expect any new development to come with benefits and drawbacks. But as the cost of renewables continues to drop, and more projects come online throughout Minnesota, it’s important that we rely on real data and not simply assumptions.

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