Freedom Fight: Wisconsin Utilities Try to Ban Private Solar Power

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Wisconsin’s public utility companies are now pressuring members of the Wisconsin legislature to pass a bill that would expand their control over EV chargers in the Badger State. According to Energy News Network, the bill was supposed to expand EV charging infrastructure by confirming that private businesses can sell electricity to drivers at charging stations.

But amendments sponsored by the utility companies would ban government entities from owning or leasing EV chargers and would allow stations to charge for electricity only if it comes from the utility companies and not from privately owned onsite solar installations.

The position of many utility companies is clear. “It’s our electricity, damn it and we will decide how it is made and distributed, and how much people will pay for it!” Their attitude is that when Moses came down from the mountain, he brought with him written instructions from God that guaranteed utility companies would never, ever face competition. It’s it the Bible, or the Constitution, or someplace.

Clean energy proponents, including Renew Wisconsin, now say they want governor Tony Evers to veto the bill if it passes the legislature with those provisions intact. Scores of private businesses in Wisconsin currently own EV chargers and bill customers for the energy. But there are fears opposition by utility companies could shut them down at any moment, especially if they decide to build their own charging networks.

The situation has much in common with the state’s longstanding concerns about third party owned solar installations. Utilities have argued such arrangements infringe on their exclusive rights to deliver power to customers, hence third party solar is essentially impossible in Wisconsin even though no law bans it. A bill currently before lawmakers would clarify that third party solar ownership is legal and another bill would facilitate community solar with third party ownership.

“All three bills have this thread of the utilities wants to make sure nobody can sell any kind of electricity in any form,” said Jim Boullion, government affairs director of Renew Wisconsin. He noted that at least 34 states have laws specifically differentiating EV charging from utility service, while only five states — Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Virginia — have adopted policies restricting EV charging station ownership except by utilities.

“We’re talking about a different industry than the ‘obligation to serve’ that the utilities have. They’re now expanding into transportation fuels. We think the regulatory system is good and we need it, but the way things are changing in the world, having these strict limits is really hampering the growth of this clean affordable energy source. There has to be some flexibility in the model we’ve had for 120 years to acknowledge this new technology,” Boullion says.

The Rural Vs Urban EV Chargers

The bill with the amendments attached would prohibit cities and towns from building charging stations that EV customers pay for in municipal parking garages or at commercial properties. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities, representing almost 600 towns and cities, notes in a letter to legislators that it will revoke its original support of the bill if the amendments remain intact. Its government affairs director Toni Herkert frames it as an issue of equity in her December 2021 letter:

“A complete prohibition against municipalities owning, operating, managing, leasing, or controlling EV charging facilities does not allow for all areas of the state to be reliably served with charging facilities. Limiting entities that can provide charging facilities will simply result in the most profitable areas, where the market dictates successful investment, to be reliably served. We do not want electric vehicle charging opportunities to mirror the lack of market incentives witnessed for broadband investment in rural areas. It will again be those smaller and more rural communities that will be most impacted and under or unserved.”

Flo, a company that develops EV chargers along streets, also opposes the bill as amended. In a letter, senior public affairs specialist Cory Bullis says such curbside charging stations are often built by local governments to encourage patronage of local commerce. “Businesses aren’t motivated to single-handedly spend their own money on an asset that will benefit their competitors on the same block, nor are they willing to take on the liability of owning an asset that is permitted on public property. City governments can step up to provide this value to multiple businesses simultaneously, ensuring everyone benefits. The EV charging industry is still young and quickly evolving. This provision picks winners and losers among EV charging business models by expressly locking us out of the state,” he writes.

Advocates worry the bill would exacerbate “range anxiety,” since the ban on for-pay charging stations owned by the government or powered by solar would makes it harder to locate stations in remote and rural areas. “If I’m going to the state park up north and have solar plus storage [powering an EV charger], then I do not have to run high-power lines out there” to install a charger, says Boullion.

Oh, Those Scary Solar Panels!

The bill also would prevent businesses with their own solar panels from receiving payment for EV charging unless they install a separate meter to ensure that no power from the solar panels goes to the EV charger, according to Boullion. Can you believe the arrogance of these greedy utility companies? The bill will be a disincentive for expanding both solar installations and EV charging stations, and will discourage the ideal clean transportation solution, which is vehicles powered directly by solar energy.

Even if businesses or governments sell some behind-the-meter or off-grid solar power to electric vehicles without utilities getting a cut, advocates argue the proliferation of EVs is bound to benefit utilities. Solar plus storage arrangements that help power EVs can reduce demand spikes and stress on the grid and even power emergency vehicles or provide extra energy during outages, Renew Wisconsin said in testimony to the legislature.

The more charging stations there are available, the more people will feel comfortable buying electric vehicles. In most cases, the entity charging for use of the charging stations will be first buying that electricity from the utility and utilities should see their demand increase as more cars are charged at home. “The utilities will gain a lot of business out of this,” Boullion said. “They will sell a lot of extra energy.”

They don’t see it that way, of course. They see it as someone trying to break into their walled garden. If they can’t sell electricity to electric car owners, nobody should be able to. Fie on you private operators. All electrons belong to us!

Many CleanTechnica readers see the time coming when some legacy automakers will go out of business. The same can be said for utility companies which refuse to adapt to new technology. As usual, all capitalists fully embrace the “for profit” aspects of doing business but fight like hell when the “creative destruction” component of capitalist theory comes into play. They prefer a “heads we win, tails you lose” arrangement that preserves their revenue stream in perpetuity. Such arrogance will only hasten their demise as new technologies make them irrelevant.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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