Midwest utilities embrace big solar, push back on rooftops

E&E News | Jeffrey Tomich, May 13, 2019

Midwest utilities embrace big solar, push back on rooftops

Once written off as too undependable and expensive for a region where coal was still king, solar energy is being embraced by Midwest utilities at a pace once unthinkable.

  • Consider a map of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s (MISO) interconnection queue, where there’s almost 200 solar projects – representing about 30,000 megawatts – being developed and waiting to tie into the grid. While just a fraction of those projects will get built, new ones will continue to populate the MISO list as utilities are proposing thousands of megawatts of solar, in part to replace old coal plants. 
  • Consumers Energy plans for more than 5,000 MW of solar over 20 years.
  • Northern Indiana Public Service Co. is eyeing 1,500 MW in the next decade.

But while utilities are committing to large-scale solar projects, even community solar projects, to meet renewable energy mandates or advance sustainability goals, many companies are simultaneously pushing for changes that would discourage adoption of customer-owned solar.

Active solar projects map

Utilities say the push to change rate structure for distributed generation (DG) is about fairness and eliminating subsidies among customers. The solar industry says it boils down to ownership and the chance to earn a profit on investments. “DG is always going to be a tougher sell because they see that more as competition,” said Sean Gallagher, director of state policy at the Solar Energy Industries Association. […]

The disputes over distributed generation continue to play out even as the U.S. solar industry hits a milestone. U.S. solar installations surpassed 2 million, according to a report by SEIA and Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. The bulk of installations are commercial and residential solar installations in states like California and in the Northeast, where higher retail electricity prices and state policies mean faster paybacks, said Michelle Davis, senior solar analyst with Wood Mackenzie.

“States that have seen the most growth, especially in distributed solar, are among the states that have the most supportive policies,” Davis said. Declining costs are also a key and played a main part in the acceleration of solar installations nationwide.