Rate change proposals could signal transition in electric industry

MADISON — Wisconsin’s electricity industry is in the hot seat as Madison Gas and Electric Co. awaits an imminent decision from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin on MGE’s proposal to change the way residential customers are billed.

On Tuesday industry experts told a Cleantech Network forum at the Wisconsin Energy Institute that the decision, expected before the end of the year, could signal changes in the way Wisconsin utility companies use residential customers to cover more of the fixed costs of doing business.

Opponents said it is a way for utility companies in Wisconsin to try to immunize themselves against fluctuating electricity usage as consumers make more efforts to conserve energy. Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a small nonprofit, told the group that MGE’s request could change the landscape for Wisconsin utilities going forward.

“We have been engaged in rate cases for a long, long time,” Huebner said. “We have been around for 23 years and been engaged in commission proceedings for all that time. There’s never been a series of rate cases with more interest from the public than the ones that are currently before us.”

Huebner said the industry is at a crossing point. “Some more action needs to happen on energy savings, on renewables, on a clean power plan, and … these proposals from the utilities will make this more difficult to meet these future goals of business creation, entrepreneurship, and reducing carbon emissions.”

Other similar cases are pending from WE Energies and Wisconsin Public Service Corp.

Scott Neitzel, senior vice president of MGE, said the proposal would guarantee the reliability of the power grid to which all customers connect. The utility proposes increasing the fixed portion of what residential customers pay from $10.44 a month to $19 a month to recover the costs of maintaining the system for all customers. “What is a fair way to pay for that grid?” Neitzel asked.

Another panel participant, Todd Stuart, executive director of the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group that represents the largest consumers, said the MGE request, which would operate for one year, was modest. “This is a no-brainer,” Stuart said. “It’s very defensible.”

Opponents said the proposal has attracted intense national and local interest because the MGE proposal could be a harbinger of a future in which utility companies limit their dependence on electricity usage to pay their bills.

Critics say the plan will penalize people who use less energy, and high-end users will have no incentive to cut back.

The forum was produced by the Wisconsin Technology Council in cooperation with the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium, Godfrey & Kahn, and Kremer Ventures. Also speaking at the forum was Charles McGinnis, director of strategic projects, Johnson Controls.

— By Patricia Simms

For WisBusiness.com