Utility proposes low buyback rate for customer-sited bioenergy
Contained in Milwaukee-based We Energies’ pending rate filing is a proposal to cut the buyback rate for new customer-sited bioenergy projects by more than half, down to 4.24 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) beginning in January 2016. The proposed rate would also apply to existing biodigesters once their existing power purchase contracts with We Energies expire.
Currently, We Energies pays about 9.2 cents per kWh for electricity generated from biogas produced from dairy cow manure or food wastes, and that rate remains in effect for the first 10 years of that system’s operation. We Energies’ biogas rate, along with similar rates offered by other utilities, was instrumental in building up bioenergy’s strong presence in Wisconsin. However, We Energies discontinued its special biogas offer several years ago, as have other utilities.
“Biogas generation provides tremendous benefits to Wisconsin,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin. “Biogas provides another revenue stream to dairy operations to offset fluctuations in milk prices. It helps Wisconsin keep energy dollars in the state, because we send $16 billion a year out of Wisconsin to pay for energy when we can make more of it here at home. It helps clean up our environment by reducing phosphorous at the source. The list goes on and on.”
According to RENEW Wisconsin, a renewable energy organization intervening in We Energies’ rate case, the 4.24 cents/kWh rate is a key part of We Energies’ ambitious plan to undermine the economics of customer-sited renewable energy systems through a combination of low power purchase prices and onerous charges. The Public Service Commission will review the utility’s proposal and make a decision on it before the end of this year.
“No dairy farm or food processor can make the economics of generating electricity from bioenergy work with such a low rate,” said RENEW Wisconsin executive director Tyler Huebner. “This rate is guaranteed to stifle new bioenergy development in We Energies’ territory.”
“Moreover, dairy operations with existing generating units may have no choice but to discontinue producing electricity when their current contracts with We Energies expire,” Huebner said. “The gas will either be put to a less financially attractive use or simply flared off.”
“There is no compelling rationale for a buyback rate this low,” Huebner said. “Several of We Energies’ power plants, such as Valley and Rothschild, have fuel costs that exceed 4.24 cents/kWh.”
Fuel costs at Rothschild, a new biomass cogeneration plant in central Wisconsin, are averaging over 10 cents/kWh in 2014.
“Even under the 9.2 cents/kWh rate, buying electricity from operations such as Crave Brothers near Waterloo and Clover Hill near Campbellsport is less expensive than generating electricity from that plant,” Huebner said.
“We’re worried that with We Energies’ proposed acquisition of Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), this low-ball rate, if approved, will spread into prime Wisconsin dairying country in 2017. If WPS follows We Energies’ lead, this could put on-farm bioenergy development in a state of permanent contraction.”
Existing bioenergy generation systems interconnected to We Energies include Forest County Potawatomi Digester (Milwaukee, 2,000 kilowatts); Green Valley Dairy (Shawano, 1,200 kW), Crave Bros., (Waterloo, 633 kW); Clover Hill (Cambellsport, 480 kilowatts); and Volm Farms (Addison, 225 kW).