Wisconsin Utility Sought Solar Fees After Regulator Advised CEO

A solar industry group appealing a decision to impose the most expensive solar fees in the U.S. said a Wisconsin regulator violated rules barring communication about pending cases.

Ellen Nowak, a regulator for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, and Wisconsin Energy Corp. Chief Executive Officer Gale Klappa participated in a panel together at a utility industry conference in June. Her discussions with Klappa at the conference should have disqualified her from voting on a pending rate case, said Bryan Miller, a co-chairman of the Alliance for Solar Choice.

“Nowak should recuse herself before their rate decision becomes final,” Miller said. “She’s behind the most expensive anti-solar ruling in the U.S. and we’re appealing it on both the substance and the process.”

Wisconsin Energy, based in Milwaukee, received preliminary permission this month to impose new fees on customers with rooftop solar panels, saying the utility needs to recover its costs to maintain the electricity grid. Solar advocates say such fees, which also have been proposed in other states, will threaten wider use of renewable energy.

Through a spokesman, Nowak said she didn’t discuss the rate case at the conference with Klappa. The fees will be about $30 to $40 a month per customer, depending on the size of the system.

Fixed Fees

Nowak told the audience June 10 at an Edison Electric Institute conference that utilities should revise their rate structures, introducing fixed fees so customers who produce their own power with rooftop solar systems continue to pay enough to cover the costs of maintaining the grid.

Joel Rogers, a professor of administrative law at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison, reviewed a transcript of her comments and said they could be seen as improperly offering advice.

“Appearing on a panel together goes right up to the edge of impropriety, but giving advice goes beyond that,” Rogers said today in an interview. “She should have recused herself.”

Wisconsin Energy had initiated the process for raising its rates in April. Less than three weeks after the Edison Electric Institute event, the company submitted a detailed proposal that included a fixed fee for customers with solar power, sometimes called distributed generation or D.G.

That proposal was approved Nov. 14 by the commission 2-1, with Nowak voting in favor. She was appointed by Governor Scott Walker.

“The traditional rate design will no longer work with the growth in the D.G. environment,” Nowak said on the panel. “We need to make more of the fixed costs more in line with fixed charges, particularly so those customers who don’t participate in DG are not paying for those who do.”

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