Springtime always brings new opportunities to work with our state legislators and the Wisconsin delegation in the U.S. Congress. This year was no different. In March, we had the chance to host Education and Lobby Days for our members. This event allows electric cooperative representatives to meet with our elected officials in Madison to discuss issues important to the success of our operations and the members and communities they serve. Similarly, in April, a smaller contingent traveled to Washington, D.C., for the legislative conference that the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association hosts each spring. There, we met with members of Congress to talk about issues important to Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives at the national level.
For electric cooperatives to keep the power flowing, several utilize Rural Utilities Service (RUS) loans to help finance infrastructure projects. Our advocacy work in Washington, D.C., and Madison is done so our
member cooperatives can continue to provide you with safe, reliable, and affordable electricity.
In Washington, we talked about the importance of RUS loans, especially when the government’s policies will result in thousands of miles of new transmission powerlines and new power generation assets to significantly reduce carbon emissions within the electric industry.
Funding for RUS loans and many other elements, including funding to support agriculture and nutritional programs, must be re-authorized every five years through the Farm Bill, which is up this year. We asked our members of Congress to support programs that help electric cooperatives. We also discussed the necessity of overhauling the federal regulatory permitting process—it often takes years for co-ops to get permits to move ahead on clean energy projects or to gain approval to modernize their systems. Without a more efficient permitting process, clean energy goals with established timelines are almost certainly unachievable. This is further exacerbated by lawsuits challenging the permitting process that often hold up projects for many more years.
In Madison, we lobbied against community solar legislation that could harm our members. We are not opposed to solar as a renewable energy source in Wisconsin. In fact, our members continue to build community solar arrays and are currently looking at the feasibility of additional systems. Our concerns, however, focus on three primary issues: cost shifting, reliability, and consumer protection.
Cooperatives build solar systems with all members in mind, not just a select few, and costs/savings are shared accordingly. Unfortunately, the community solar legislation being considered in Madison would shift system costs to other utility customers who wouldn’t receive any of the benefits. It’s not a fair ask, especially since the legislation virtually eliminates the business risk for developers by requiring the state to set lofty community solar buy-back rates that come out of the pockets of the ratepayers.
It’s essential to recognize that the significant addition of community solar—an intermittent power source—creates costly reliability issues. Ultimately these costs will be borne by all its consumers. How? Intermittent power sources provide power some of the time, yet we all expect to have power all of the time. Therefore, electric utilities must have a backup power source, such as a natural gas power plant that runs when community solar doesn’t, to ensure there is always power. Reliability comes with a cost, whether it’s used or not.
Recently, I wrote about the potential of being swindled by a solar developer and shared a few cases in
Wisconsin. Most solar developer contracts are for 20 years or more. That’s a long time, and with little to no oversight, you surely hope all of the promised benefits will materialize. Having consumer-friendly laws in place certainly seems like an appropriate step in the long-term interests of both the developers and their customers.
Though much of our advocacy for electric cooperatives occurs in the spring, we’re looking out for your best interests year-round. But unfortunately, there are always political attempts to exploit what we have worked so hard to create and other efforts that are not in the best interests of our communities. It’s why we need to be engaged in conversations with our elected officials on legislation that will affect all of us.