December 8, 2014

Wisconsin State Commission Backs Electric Bill Hikes, ‘Solar Tax’

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission voted for a rate plan submitted by We Energies that environmentalists say penalizes customers who conserve energy and jeopardizes the fledgling solar industry in southeastern Wisconsin.

“We feel like what the PSC approved for the We Energies rate case is a huge setback for Wisconsin in the area of clean energy development,” said Keith Reopelle, senior policy director for Clean Wisconsin, a statewide environmental advocacy group.

In a mid-November vote, the commission split 2–1 in approving We Energies proposed rate changes. The plan will be finalized in December and take effect in January.

The commission approved a 75-percent increase in the monthly fixed charges that residential customers see on their bills in southeastern Wisconsin and the Fox Valley area. Monthly fixed fees will go from $9.13 to $16. We Energies said it needs to increase the charge so all customers — large users and small users — share in maintaining the company’s infrastructure.

“What we’re proposing is fair rates for all our customers who use the grid,” said We Energies spokeswoman Jessica Williamson, according to the AP.

As the fixed fee goes up, hourly usage rates would drop by less than a cent per kilowatt-hour.

The two commissioners who backed the increase, Phil Montgomery and Ellen Nowak, were appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The commissioner who voted no, Eric Callisto, was appointed by Democrat Jim Doyle.

“Under this decision, customers who use more will see lower bills and customers who use less will see higher bills,” said Robert Kelter, senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a nonprofit active on conservation issues throughout the Midwest. “It sends the wrong price signals on energy efficiency because it makes it harder for customers to control their monthly bills.”

A ‘solar tax’

The We Energy plan also involves billing changes for customers investing in renewable energy systems, with a provision that existing owners of solar systems will be grandfathered for 10 years.

Under the changes, customers with renewable energy systems will pay We Energies $3.80 per kilowatt per month, based on the size of the system. This means that a property-owner with a 4 kW solar system would pay $182 annually to We Energies for owning that solar system. 

Additionally, We Energies reduced the price credited for excess generation from the current 14 cents per kilowatt-hour to just 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. 

“This decision is bad for job creation, bad for energy independence, bad for the environment and bad for customers,” stated Tyler Huebner, executive director the conservation group RENEW Wisconsin.
He continued, “Our Republican-appointed commissioners approved a new tax, killed jobs and restricted energy choice in Wisconsin.”

Huebner said the commission ignored facts and a “record level of over 1,900 public comments” in reaching its decision on the We Energies rate changes.

And Reopelle recalled the results of a pre-election poll showing Wisconsinites overwhelmingly support more reliance and investment in clean energy, not less. “We Energies’ proposal was especially egregious in terms of how it treated solar power,” he said, adding that there is great potential for developing clean energy sources in the state but “the policies we have in place are not particularly friendly.”

‘rapacious demands’

We Energies is not the only Wisconsin utility seeking rate changes that involve increased fixed monthly fees and slightly lower hourly rates. The PSC voted to raise Wisconsin Public Service Corporation’s fixed monthly charge to $9, less than the $15 that the utility asked for. As WiG went to press, a request from Madison Gas and Electric was pending.

The regulatory decisions drove Democratic lawmakers to call for an investigation and reform of the state regulatory process and pushed Alliance for Solar Choice, a group advocating solar energy, to announce plans to sue once the We Energies plan is finalized.

Democratic state Sen. Tim Carpenter, calling for “major reform,” said, “The PSC has shown that it is either unwilling or unable to protect residential customers in the face of rapacious and predatory demands of large public utility corporations. The PSC members are supposed to balance the public utilities’ desire for a regulated profit with what is fair for the customers. The failure of the PSC to provide such balance is simply unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. Christine Sinicki questioned the integrity of the regulatory process in the wake of a Capital Times report finding that some people identified on a “Consumer Energy Association” list as advocates of We Energies’ plan didn’t actually back the requests.

She said her husband “was falsely listed as a supporter” and “was not contacted by the CEA and does not support the We Energies proposal. Further, he does not support raising fixed fees on utility bills in a way that harms homeowners, seniors and clean energy development.”

Sinicki characterized the CEA as a Houston-based lobbying group for the fossil fuel industry and said its list of supporters for the We Energies proposal was oddly identical to a list it submitted in support of Madison Gas and Electric’s rate hike plan.

The lists were tossed in late October by an administrative law judge who determined they contained “inadequate and incorrect information.”

Sinicki said she’s concerned about fraud and corruption.

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