Montgomery: New PSC chief seeking 'balance'
By Brian E. Clark
Though he’s had a long career as a Republican partisan, Phil Montgomery stresses that he wants to be seen as an independent actor at the PSC.
“I view this more as a quasi-judicial role,” the former GOP Assembly energy chair said in a new WisBusiness.com interview. “We are not the Legislature, not the executive branch. We are more in the mode of a regulatory body that hopefully can find consensus based more on the science and information provided us.
“I look forward to the challenge and working with my other commissioners.”
Those two other commissioners -- Eric Callisto, the former chair, and Lauren Azar -- were appointed by Dem guv Jim Doyle.
WisBusiness audioWhile he was appointed by GOP Gov. Scott Walker, Montgomery bristles when asked to define the Walker energy philosophy. “I thought this interview was with me,” he snapped. “I guess I very rarely define something for someone else. If you want to find out what the Walker administration energy policy, I would call the Walker administration.”
Montgomery said his own position on energy could be summed up in the word “balance.”
“What we have to try to achieve here is a balance of numerous factors. Obviously, you have energy rates, capacity, reliability, environmental aspects. Finding a balance within all those parameters with the professional staff that we have out here is, I guess, my goal.''
Montgomery said he isn't certain what Doyle energy policies he'll seek to retain or terminate.
“That goes back to question of balance,” he said. “You have to look at what is the proper mix.”
Montgomery was an opponent of Doyle’s Clean Energy Jobs Act that would have required the state to get 25 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2025.
But the new PSC chief said one of the highlights of his legislative career was “working with the various stakeholders to get to our current 10 percent renewable portfolio.”
Montgomery chuckled when asked if Wisconsin might return to the days when it had some of the lowest energy costs in the region.
“Rates tend to be generally driven by sales declines, fuel price volatility and purchase power costs,” he said.
But he noted that when Wisconsin had low energy rates in the early 1990s, it also was facing a significant reliability crisis. Since then, the state has built a number of expensive power plants and rates have gone up.
“We did not have the capacity then to meet demand,” he said.
“So again, there are a number of issues that come into play. I keep circling back to, and I believe strongly in this, finding that right balance will get us to where we need to be in terms of reliability, cost, environment and a number of other factors.”
Montgomery said he was aware that several wind turbine projects have been delayed following changes in state law pushed by Walker to increase setbacks of turbines from property lines.
Montgomery wouldn't say if he backed the Walker move but said he supports statewide energy rules.
And he questioned if the setback requirements were the only reason that turbine company executives changed their minds.
“I can’t speculate as to why a company makes a business decision,” he said.
“I would say that overall, that another factor, one of many factors, is where we are with generating capacity overall, whether it is by windmill, by solar panel, by coal, by natural gas or by nuclear. Right now, our state is in an over-capacity mode."
In light of Japan's nuke troubles, Montgomery now says he believes the state should take a long look before easing the moratorium on expanding on nuclear power in the Badger State .
“Obviously, in light of what is going on in Japan, there needs to be a period of review and assessment of how that effects us here… before we move forward with any changes,” said Montgomery, who noted that nuclear power plants currently produce 21 percent of Wisconsin’s electric energy.
“But overall, I would say that nuclear power will continue to play a role here.”
In addition to dealing with energy issues, the PSC also sets rates for water and telecommunications utilities.
Montgomery said he is aware that water rates are rising in the state and said the PSC needs to look closely at the requirements it is placing on water utilities.
“Back in the early 1980s, I had a college professor who said ‘forget about petroleum, it is going to be water that is going to be the tough thing to figure out.'
"Again, it’s balance. We have a tremendous resource (because) we are next door to Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.”
On the telecommunications side, Montgomery said he could not comment on the push by some companies to change state telecom laws to align them with other Midwestern states.
“That is a legislative prerogative that is before the Legislature,” he said. When it comes to us, we will look at legislation and (determine) what our role will be.”