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January/February 2021 Issue

Also in this issue: Divided Court Agrees With Kenosha: Property Not Actually Used for Ag Purposes May Be Assessed as Residential     |     Municipal Prosecution Cost Saving Tips

Governor’s Climate Change Task Force Sees Prominent Role for Local Government

The Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change report released this past December (Report) outlines an array of policy recommendations to address the growing impact of climate change. The 32 member bipartisan task force was convened under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes in October 2019.  The Report details policy options and implementation strategies in nine sectors, including energy, transportation and resiliency. 

Among the more consequential recommendations in the 46 so-called “Tier 1” policy options described in the Report are: the goal of reducing net carbon levels to 100% below 2005 levels by 2050; creating an Office of Environmental Justice; analyzing how to implement a state-wide carbon pricing regime; expanding Focus on Energy funding; and creating a Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation Green Grant and Loan program.

The Report also identifies nine “Tier 2” policy options, such as modernizing utility rate design and allowing third party renewable financing, which were too controversial to achieve stakeholder consensus.

In addition to proposing policy recommendations, the Report outlines implementation strategies.  These are primarily to be pursued via executive or agency action, the 2021-2023 State Budget and legislation.  But the report also identifies numerous areas in which local governments can lead the way.

In the energy sector, for example, the Report supports low-cost debt financing of customer clean energy programs through the expansion of property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing programs, which are currently implemented through county ordinance. The Report also recommends that the state update commercial and residential building codes to promote and enhance energy efficiency measures, including EV charging station readiness.  In contrast to current law, local governments, however, would be allowed to set stricter standards.

The Report also recommends an increase in funding to the Office of Energy Innovation, which is housed with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSCW), to assist local communities develop critical green energy infrastructure to improve resilience.  This would include energy storage facilities and microgrids, which are self-sufficient distributed energy systems that serve discrete local areas such as hospitals, business parks and college campuses.

According to the Report, “communities need support and incentives to invest in renewable energy projects so that they can be part of the state’s green energy future.”  One area highlighted by the Report where local communities can play a lead role — in partnership with their incumbent utilities — is community solar. 

Community solar projects provide greater access to green energy in local communities by removing ownership and geographic barriers.  They generally require special utility tariffs in order to insulate non-participating customers from cross subsidies and reduce upfront buy-in costs for customers.  One such tariff was recently approved by the PSCW for Superior Water, Light & Power.  The tariff will enable the utility to develop a 470 kw solar garden in Superior, which will serve over 100 residential customers.  Successful community solar tariffs have also been developed to support solar installations in Middleton, Eau Claire, La Crosse, River Falls and several other Wisconsin localities.

Notably, the Report cites Wis. Stat. sec. 196.192, which requires investor owned utilities to develop market based rates and other developmental tariffs, as being a tool to facilitate community solar project development.  The Report also suggests that local governments be enlisted “to help regulate” such projects.  The Report, however, does not expound on these ideas further.

In the transportation sector, the Report recommends an increase in public transit system funding in the state budget and recommends that municipalities and regions be encouraged to effectively coordinate and fund local transportation systems.  It also identifies vehicle electrification as a “key solution” for decarbonizing transportation and proposes a number of policies to promote EV infrastructure throughout the state.

It’s unclear as yet how significant an impact the Report will have on the legislative front, or the Budget process.  However, municipalities with energy or carbon reduction-related goals should be attuned to the potential development of opportunities in these areas.

An online version of the Report can be found at: https://climatechange.wi.gov/Pages/Home.aspx

This newsletter is published and distributed for informational pur- poses only. It does not offer legal advice with respect to particular situations, and does not purport to be a complete treatment of the legal issues surrounding any topic. Because your situation may differ from those described in this Newsletter, you should not rely solely on this information in making legal decisions.

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