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solarAs solar power enters the mainstream, this is a story that’s growing increasingly common throughout the United States: A large utility company is trying to impose a sun tax on its solar customers, and renewable advocates are crying foul. 

As the Wisconsin Energy Corporation begins a $9.1 billion deal to acquire Chicago-based Integrys Energy Group, its subsidiary, We Energies, wants to simultaneously charge customers 75 percent more for electricity and compensate solar customers less for energy they generate for the grid.

Currently, Wisconsin allows customers with solar panels to take advantage of the state’s net-metering policy: Excess energy they generate throughout the day is compensated to them in the form of an energy credit. But according to a recent bill mailed to the utility’s 1.1 million customers, this is unfair to non-solar customers.

“Currently, customers using their own renewable energy systems still need to use the electric grid, yet they pay less than their share for their use of the grid,” it explains. “This leaves more for the cost of the grid to be paid by customers who do not have or cannot afford their own systems.”

In addition to compensating renewable customers less for net-metering, We Energies is proposing to increase the fixed charge for electricity from $9 per month to $16 per month.

This has outraged solar companies and customers across the state. “It would not only end solar but remove the economic viability for any renewable energy in Wisconsin,” says Matt Neumann, owner of SunVest.

By increasing fixed charges, critics say, the utility is removing the incentive for customers to conserve energy or adopt cleaner, more efficient renewables. And given that solar households make up less than one percent of We Energies’ customers, the case they’re making is “frivolous,” according to Bryan Miller, co-chair of The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) and Vice President of Public Policy and Power Markets for Sunru.

The move has also drawn the ire of some surprising sources. First, from Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots. “It’s very clear they’re not looking out for the best interest of their customers, they’re looking out for the best interest of their stockholders,” said Dooley of We Energies.

“I think it’s wrong what they’re doing and it’s a tax. They’re trying to tax the sun and that’s how desperate they are to deprive their customers of energy freedom,” she said. Dooley is scheduled to speak to Wisconsin’s Solar Energy Industries Association next week.

And second, from retired U.S. Representative Barry Goldwater, Jr. (R-AZ). Goldwater sent a letter to Wisconsin legislators saying We Energies’ plan to pay solar customers less is contrary to conservative, free-market principles. This is but one instance of utilities nationwide trying to attack instead of adapt to new energies.

Goldwater writes in his letter that utilities “have added market barriers that prohibit businesses and homeowners from entering the market.”

“They want to limit how people can use their property to generate their own electricity,” he continued. “And, they are attempting to tax the businesses and homeowners that do. These attacks are a blatant attempt to stifle competition in order to protect their monopolies and their bottom lines.”

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