Democratic Gov. Tony Evers may soon have a chance to tip the regulatory scales in his and solar developers' favor, following the early departure of a Republican-appointed utility commissioner.
Public Service Commissioner (PSC) Mike Huebsch announced on Monday his last day at the commission will be Feb. 3, giving the governor a window to appoint his second commissioner since he first took office in January 2019.
Gov. Evers ran his campaign on strong climate and clean energy goals but has faced some headwinds from a Republican-controlled legislature. Now, he has the chance to change the makeup of the state's energy regulatory body in his favor, and solar developers in particular are eager to jump on the opportunity to clarify third-party ownership laws in the state.
Wisconsin's governor was anticipated by clean energy stakeholders to have some of the steepest hurdles for implementing his renewable energy goals. But the governor has handed several wins to environmental advocates since he began his term, including signing an executive order to bring the state to 100% carbon-free energy by 2050.
Currently, Wisconsin regulators face a number of questions critical to the state's renewables future, Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, told Utility Dive in an email, including preparing for a future with more electric vehicles on the road, transitioning the power sector away from coal, and properly valuing clean energy technologies' contribution to the grid.
"[W]e hope Gov. Evers appoints someone who is ready to tackle some key issues related to achieving the Governors' clean energy goals," said Huebner.
A key tension in Wisconsin has been over defining third-party solar financing in the state, which dictates developers' ability to finance solar projects. The Republican-majority PSC has repeatedly declined to clarify the issue. The latest vote on the matter was a 2-1 decision denying developer Eagle Point Solar's request to take up the issue, with the sole dissenting vote coming from Evers-appointed Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq.
After that decision, Eagle Point sued the state's largest utility and the PSC over lack of clarity on those rules. We Energies had repeatedly denied the developer's interconnection permits, asserting those permits were illegal under Wisconsin law because the developer is not a utility.
Though it's not yet clear how the PSC shakeup will impact that lawsuit, Eagle Point President Barry Shear said he will likely ask the PSC again to address the issue once a new commissioner is appointed.
"I do think that ... having a two-to-one [Democratic] majority that this issue is going to get the attention that it deserves," he said.
Another issue facing Wisconsin is its high electricity rates compared to the rest of the Midwest, in part due to fossil fuel imports. Consumer advocates want that to be a focus for the new commissioner as well.
"It's our hope that Gov. Evers will appoint someone who will have a focus on making sure our businesses have competitive rates and that homeowners and renters aren't overpaying for their utility services," Executive Director of Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin Tom Content told Utility Dive in an email. "Our rates have climbed over the years to the point that Wisconsin now has higher rates than many of our Midwest counterparts."
We Energies did not comment on how the shift may impact PSC decision-making, but commended the commissioner "for his decades of public service," spokesperson Brendan Conway told Utility Dive in an email.
Huebner said that Huebsch had been "a critical vote and voice as the transition to utility-scale renewable energy began in Wisconsin" in recent years.
Huebsch was first appointed to the commission under Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2015 for a six year term. Any new appointee under Evers will need to be confirmed by the Wisconsin Senate.
The governor's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.