Third-party ownership offers way to transition from coal-powered energy

By DENA EAKLES | Echo Valley Hope, rural Ontario

This column is No. 3 in a series of information compiled by Dena Eakles of Echo Valley Hope. The purpose is to provide information to all Vernon Energy Cooperative members so they can actively guide their cooperative. 

And you thought this was going to be easy. There are organizations and regulatory bodies that impact our membership with our co-op, VEC. Currently there is a question before the PSC asking for a “declaratory ruling related to third-party financed distributed energy resources (DER).” Organizations like the Midwest Renewable Energy Association and Vote Solar are asking for the ruling in order to clarify what has become a stumbling block for third-party financed solar. Let’s break this down.

Third-party ownership (TPO) is a business arrangement allowing renewable energy generating equipment to be financed, owned or leased to a property owner or occupant in order to fulfill energy needs. This is an important option for those who cannot personally finance the leap to solar.  The TPO systems remain tied to the grid and follow the same guidelines yet offer a financial break from traditional energy sources. 

At this time, as we move away from costly coal-powered energy, TPOs offer another possibility to help this transition.  

What is the PSC? From their website at https://psc.wi.gov/Pages/AboutPSC/HistoryAndMission.aspx

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) is a regulatory authority established by the 1907 Public Utilities Law, making Wisconsin one of the first states to regulate public utilities.​ The PSC of Wisconsin “ensures safe, reliable, affordable, and environmentally responsible utility services and equitable access to telecommunications and broadband services.” 

The request to the PSC for a declaratory ruling has resistance from VEC through WECA. The Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association is an advocacy organization of which Vernon Electric Cooperative is a member. From their website: “The highest-priority activities of WECA entail advocacy on behalf of its member cooperatives in legislative, regulatory, and other public policy forums at every level.” https://www.weca.coop/advocacy

The current debate centers on whether third-party financed (solar and renewable energy) installers are sidestepping public utilities. The concern being raised by WECA on behalf of VEC is the need to “protect” consumers. But protections for consumers already exist. WECA’s arguments do not protect the members of VEC, but rather they are based in preserving the economic structure of the utility that VEC is harnessed to, Dairyland Power. Question to ponder and to ask: When third-party developers from outside Wisconsin build large-scale solar arrays for utilities, do VEC members receive financial benefit or financial burden?

This question was the basis for the resolution passed by VEC membership in April 2022. The request was for cost–benefit analysis of these large-scale systems versus more locally generated systems. The membership is still awaiting cost-benefit analysis from VEC. The burden of cost for third-party renewables for a utility is shared by all of us. When TPOs form a financial relationship with an individual or group, there is no cost to VEC members. 

Suffice it to say, the news we receive with our monthly electric bills only reveal the tip of the iceberg. It’s time to pay attention.

You can find WECA’s argument at https://wecnmagazine.com/article/the-rising-threat-of-unregulated-third-party-ownership/

You can find the testimony of Corey Singletary on behalf of the Citizens Utility Board to the PSC (in favor of allowing TPO’s) here https://apps.psc.wi.gov/ERF/ERFview/viewdoc.aspx?docid=447477

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