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July 6, 2020In the News

Taking Charge: Wisconsin’s newest utility commissioner on the state’s ‘utility-scale changeover’

Utility Dive

Wisconsin's historical reliance on coal-generated power has shifted toward renewable energy and natural gas in recent years. Though the state is not yet able to compete with Minnesota on solar or Iowa on its abundant wind resources, the political and economic tides are turning the markets in favor of a more dramatic clean energy buildout, according to advocates in the state.

Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, who took office after the 2018 midterm elections, has been working on a suite of clean energy and climate policies. In August, he signed an executive order putting Wisconsin on a path to 100% clean energy by 2050, and his 2019 budget directed $10 million in Volkswagen settlement funds toward electric vehicle charging stations.

Gov. Evers is also utilizing an opportunity to reshape the state's Public Service Commission. In March, he made his second commissioner appointment on the three-person commission, nominating Tyler Huebner, who served as executive director of renewable energy advocacy group RENEW Wisconsin from 2013 until his appointment this spring. Before RENEW, Huebner worked at the U.S Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, as well as the Wisconsin Division of Energy Services.

Utility Dive spoke recently with Commissioner Huebner and Wisconsin energy stakeholders about their goals for the PSC and Wisconsin's role in the broader clean energy transition.

Regulating coal's decline

For the first time in 2019, coal-fired power made up less than half the state's energy mix, though it still accounted for 42% of Wisconsin's electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). 

"Wisconsin is a real hotbed of renewable energy activity right now," Heather Allen, interim executive director for RENEW Wisconsin and Huebner's former colleague at RENEW told Utility Dive. "And in part, that's because we were slow to start. ... So there's a lot of room for the market to grow in Wisconsin."

Utilities in the state have been a large part of that transition, Bill Skewes, executive director of the Wisconsin Utilities Association told Utility Dive in an email. Along with the companies' carbon reduction goals, Alliant Energy is planning to build out 1,000 MW of solar by 2023. Additional projects from WEC Energy Group and Madison Gas & Electric "will, collectively, make WI one of the largest solar producers east of the Rockies," he wrote.

Major questions remaining for the commission include determining what the proper role for utilities will be as the state moves toward electric vehicles and starts building out infrastructure, as well as ownership and financing for distributed energy resources, Eric Callisto, partner at law firm Michael Best & Friedrich's Madison, Wisconsin office where he chairs the regulatory practice, told Utility Dive.

And there are still barriers to the larger transition, said Skewes. "It remains a significant challenge to balance energy, environment and economic needs as a heavy manufacturing state that until recently, got a majority of its energy from coal," he said.

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