Renewables and efficiency under attack

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Several solar system installers we know indicate that business has been relatively slow recently. One from Illinois who has put in numerous systems in Wisconsin expressed dismay at what is happening in that state.

Many of us with renewable energy and efficiency interests have been inspired over the years by renewable energy leadership and developments in Wisconsin. The state imports almost all of its energy at a cost of billions of dollars each year, which places a substantial economic burden on its citizens. The shift to renewable energy and efficiency was considered a means to keep more energy dollars in the state to build local economies and reduce the adverse effects of pollution from fossil fuels on the public and the natural environment.

While the renewable industry has not died in Wisconsin, changes in energy policies are dimming its prospects, as reported by Kari Lydersen. A change in rules that govern siting large wind generators has severely damaged the industry. A November decision by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) on electric rate restructuring could result in dramatic reductions in renewable energy installations for consumers. Of particular concern is the imposition of new fees by WE Energies on homeowners with solar electric systems. The Alliance for Solar Choice is likely to file a legal challenge to the PSC once the decision is written.

Similar efforts to change the rate structure have been filed by utilities around the country out of a concern that their profits and business model are at risk as a result of increases in distributed energy sources such as solar, wind and biodigesters.

Not all aspects of the solar transition are adversely affected, as solar homes, solar hot water systems and off-grid solar electric systems are not subject to utility commission controls. Since Wisconsin has only a small number of solar systems installed, some wonder if the decision to raise fees on them also represents an effort to set a national precedent.

Energy efficiency improvements and the growing use of solar and wind, along with low-cost electricity from natural gas, have combined to reduce both utility sales and projections for future sales. A potential increase in electrical consumption could come from expanded electric car use. A recent article by Gina Coplon-Newfield points out that some utilities are making it cheaper for their customers to drive electric cars.

In Illinois, a combination of federal and state incentives help to stimulate electric vehicle sales. They include a cash rebate for a vehicle purchase and covering 50 percent of the cost of a charging station. According to the Illinois Green Energy Network, there are nearly 5,000 registered plug-in electric vehicles and 450 charging stations in the state. The organization just completed a statewide electric road trip to highlight infrastructure developments within the state.

The recent dramatic drop in gasoline prices, if extended over time, could slow the expansion of the electrical vehicle fleet. As “Mr. Green Car” from The Rock River Times reminds us, low gasoline prices encourage consumption and add carbon emissions.

The challenge to renewables and efficiency, along with the drive to reduce carbon emissions, has just begun and will intensify with the surplus of oil and natural gas driving down energy prices.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Dec. 10-16, 2014, issue

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