Column: In the Regulation of Wisconsin’s Monopoly Utilities, Is the Fox Guarding the Henhouse?
Above, a picture that We Energies posted on its Facebook Page. (Contributed photo)
By Nick Hylla, Special to the City-Times
If you have been following the efforts of three Wisconsin utility companies and their supporters as they have worked to build political support for their current rate proposals to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (WPSC), you are surely in the minority.
This is unfortunate as the last few months have been very revealing as to the state of utility regulation in Wisconsin.
Since late August of this year, three Wisconsin investor-owned utilities have been lobbying legislators and messaging the public to help ensure WPSC approval of their proposals to increase the fixed costs we pay for electricity and limit solar and efficiency investments from their ratepayers. This campaign for “Energy Fairness” has guided the lobbying efforts of the Wisconsin Utilities Association, We Energies and their Political Action Committee, Americans for Prosperity, and the Wisconsin Utility Investors Association. This message, supported by We Energies online campaign, has repeated the same phrase and talking points with the hopes of convincing legislators and the voting public that customer-owned solar must be stopped and this is the best way to do it.
I’m sure the campaign has convinced some. If it has, it would not be due to any data or factual analysis of the current cost or benefits of customer-owned solar or manure digesters. Wisconsin’s regulated utilities, WPSC staff, public utilities commissions in other US states, and analysts through the public utility sector all know that the central argument being made (i.e. that one ratepayer’s solar electric system is significantly raising prices for other non-solar rate payers) is not occurring. This is due both to the utility refusal to study the value of the electricity provided by on-site solar and the extremely small amount that solar contributes (about 0.02% in We Energies territory) to total electricity production.
This fact, however, has not stopped the monopoly utility from campaigning against some of its very own ratepayers with noticeably flawed and highly pandering ads, including the above graphic that We Energies posted on their Facebook Page on October 3rd.
Now imagine for a second, that you are a commissioner at the WPSC and are about to make a ruling on WE Energies rate case to raise fixed costs, levy additional charges on customers that own solar and manure digesters, and ban the leasing of solar panels. You have read through the public testimony and have seen that:
- We Energies, Wisconsin Public Service, and Madison Gas & Electric have not provided any data showing that solar system owners are increasing electric costs for other non-solar owners.
- The Utah Public Service Commission just rejected a similar proposal for the exact same reason: lack of analysis proving the utility’s central argument.
- The state’s largest regulated utility, We Energies, is using its deep financial reserves and expansive network of political influence to run a public campaign that builds off of this unsubstantiated claim.
- Your vote for immediate approval would significantly reduce the financial incentive by home and business owners to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy putting this decision at odds with state and federal public policy priorities to increase our energy security, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and create jobs.
- And, three other public utility commissions (including in Minnesota) have commissioned studies to establish the value of solar energy and are advancing policies that can help utilities and rate payers work together to advance customer-owned solar.
So, what would you do?
It seems pretty obvious that any decision that would have such dramatic consequences and put us at odds with precedent set by public utilities commission’s throughout the country should be based on thorough analysis. In our regulated electric market, it also seems obvious that the WPSC should be the body that requires such an analysis. But let’s face it, you are not a commissioner and this may be less about facts or good policy than we might hope.
It is tempting to review all of the questionable relationships between WPSC commissioners and staff with the well-funded energy and manufacturing lobby but this may be a bit premature. I say this because, when it comes to the current rate cases in front of the WPSC, one thing is certain: The WPSC decisions will be highly scrutinized. There will be plenty of time to point out the blunders and missteps as other neighboring states meet and exceed their goals for energy efficiency and renewable energy and take advantage of the opportunities presented in the clean energy economy.
Currently, the best thing we can do is help remind our commissioners and political leaders that they need make decisions based on reasoned analysis and make strong consideration for our important public policy goals. With this in mind, please help us remind the WPSC that they are the regulator that is responsible for protecting Wisconsin ratepayers from monopoly control of our energy market.
Three questions that the WPSC should ask WE Energies, Wisconsin Public Service, and Madison Gas and Electric before they succumb to the campaign to raise fixed costs and limit customer-owned renewable energy:
- What percentage of the electricity in your service territory is produced by distributed generation such as solar, manure digesters, and small wind generators? Please provide data.
- You claim that the reason for your current rate proposal is the ‘rising cost of solar subsidies’ paid by customers that don’t own solar. How much impact is this currently having on the average electric bill? Please provide data.
- What are the major contributors to the ever-increasing cost of utility rates? And, what current utility policies are causing the greatest amount of customer cross-subsidization? Please provide data.