The Dual Meaning of “Community Solar”


Rob Richard, WECA Government Relations Director

Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives have a strong history of working with private solar vendors to build community solar facilities and provide clean power to their member-owners. They often do this with two facts in mind; 1) their members are increasingly asking for it and 2) cooperatives believe in a transition to cleaner energy that will, and must, continue to remain safe, reliable, and affordable.

Your cooperatives do this under a regulatory model that ensures all member-owners can have access to electricity and where all member-owners are served equitably. Electric cooperatives are governed by boards that are made up of the membership. They are accountable to you. So when they decide to establish a “community solar” program for the cooperative, they do so with all members in mind on a utility-size scale, not just a subset of members.

Contrast this with “community solar” legislation that has been introduced in the Legislature authorizing the establishment of community solar programs through which retail electric customers may subscribe to an unregulated community solar facility and receive credits to their electric bills for electricity produced by the facility. Under Senate Bill 490, introduced by State Senator Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) and State Representative Tim Ramthun (R-Campbellsport), entities called subscriber organizations may own or operate community solar facilities, which use solar energy to produce electricity for their subscribers and are connected to the electric distribution grid.

On its face, I’m sure most individuals will think this sounds like a reasonable idea. The caveat is that it will be disruptive to providing reliable and affordable clean energy in the most effective and efficient manner. This legislation requires the state to set the bill credit at an artificial level, provides no compensation for utilizing and maintaining an established grid system, and there’s no cost-sharing for the expense of having a power plant as the provider when the community solar system isn’t producing. Put simply, it’s no risk with all the reward.

If a for-profit entity is allowed to come into a not-for-profit electric cooperative service territory and demand use of the grid without paying for its maintenance, members who aren’t subscribers to the community solar network will ultimately subsidize those who are.

Wisconsin has a well-regulated system in place that is capable of maximizing utility-scale cost benefits of community solar and other renewables to its members. As the entire country transitions to more renewables, allowing utilities to continue an aggressive, yet regulated, build-out of solar, wind, and other renewable sources of clean energy is the most cost-effective and cost-efficient means of meeting this demand. Transitioning to clean energy shouldn’t have to mean that we sacrifice reliability or participation in these beneficial programs.

Electric cooperatives have made considerable strides with the inclusion of community solar and renewable energy sources within their portfolios, accounting for about 24% of the energy they sell. As we head towards a carbon-neutral future and possibly one that is free of fossil fuels, that number will continue to jump significantly. That is happening, in part, because members are demanding it. Cooperatives will need to respond to their member-owners.

Electric cooperatives do much more with far less to keep electric rates affordable. Opening the door to community solar subscriber organizations is a serious threat that could certainly create inequities among ratepayers and increase costs for those who can least afford it. We believe in community solar but with a strong emphasis on “community.” Our definition of community includes ALL member-owners in the service territory, not simply a subset that will benefit at the expense of everyone else. We will be watching this issue as it navigates the legislative process and will follow up as necessary.

—Rob Richard is the director of government relations for the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association, representing Wisconsin’s 25 electric cooperatives in Madison and Washington, D.C.