Environmentalists Fight Alliant Energy’s New Community Solar Plan

Aug 11, 2017

Alliant Energy is launching a new program for customers who want more of their electricity to come from renewable sources. 

The program called “Beyond Solar” could get underway once a new solar power plant in Dubuque goes online this fall.  

But a challenge from environmentalists may stand in the way.   

At a recent workshop at the Iowa Utilities Board, Alliant Energy made the case for “Beyond Solar.” 

We're really excited to offer this option. -Alliant V.P. Jeanine Penticoff

“We're really excited to offer this option to customers who are interested in a solar-based offering,” said Vice-President Jeanine Penticoff.   “It allows them to make an environmental difference if they aren't able to put solar on their roof.”  

So if the board agrees, Alliant customers would pay extra on their bills to help recover the cost of a $10 million, 22 acre solar power farm in Dubuque,  Alliant’s  first large-scale solar project in the state.   

“We felt we had this local resource that customers would be excited by and we wanted customers to share in that experience,” said Regulatory Affairs Manager Jason Nielsen. 

Under the program a customer would buy a one kilowatt block of solar power for about $13 a month, which is what it costs Alliant to produce it.     

A typical customer could purchase five blocks and be able to say their entire bill is paying for solar.    

Solar panels at Alliant Energy solar power farm in Dubuque.
Credit Alliant Energy

It’s Alliant’s approach to community solar, a concept gaining popularity nationwide. 

But the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Des Moines is urging the Board to turn the  project down.  

“Our concern is that customers will buy into this because they want to be helping add renewables to the grid,” said staff attorney Josh Mandelbaum, “and as near as I can tell this doesn’t add any renewables.”

Under Iowa law, utilities can offer “green pricing” programs that collect premiums from consumers to spur new development of alternative energy.   

But Mandelbaum says the Dubuque facility is happening with or without  ”Beyond Solar,” so there’s no net gain for the environment.      And he says it’s not a good deal for consumers.   

With other community solar projects in Ames and Cedar Falls, for example, customers are buying shares in solar facilities, to recoup their investment over time.

“We’ve seen this in Iowa, Minnesota, and other states, where you can have community solar programs that allow customers to benefit so they get some credit on their bills,” Mandelbaum.   “Those projects are viable.”

This doesn't add any renewables. - Josh Mandelbaum, Environmental Law and Policy Center

But Alliant officials say the municipal projects get some price breaks that they don’t get.  

“We would love to offer a project with 10 to 15 year payback range but on a cost basis we couldn't find a way to make that work,” Nielson said.   “You have to start somewhere.”

Skeptics question whether Alliant is providing customers with enough information about installing their own rooftop solar.  

“Having consumers understand their options would seem to me is missing from the current offering,” Mandelbaum said.

Other groups including the Iowa Environmental Council and the Sierra Club have weighed in.  

The Office of Consumer Advocate wants customers to understand the difference between “Beyond Solar” and Alliant’s already existing green pricing program called “Second Nature.”   

We generally like it if the parties can reach a settlement. - IUB Attorney Ben Flickinger

The next step in the controversy could be a hearing before the full Utilities Board, unless the interested parties come to an agreement on their own.

“We generally like if the parties can reach a settlement,” said IUB attorney Ben Flickinger.  “That’s preferred to going to a full hearing.”

Meanwhile Alliant is making plans to let participants show their pride in supporting solar energy if the program is approved.   

“They advertise their participation with a window cling,” Penticoff said.   “They'll be able to participate in a ribbon-cutting for the Dubuque solar project.” 

And participation could be high.      Alliant says some 87,000 customers have expressed an interest in community solar.