Kristin Gilkes sees opportunity to move Customers First Coalition forward

Kristin Gilkes, the new executive director for the Customers First Coalition, sees her job as “an opportunity to help the group move forward.”

The nonprofit coalition was formed in the late 1990’s in order to protect Wisconsin’s power customers and ensure “reliability, affordability and sustainability,” Gilkes told

It does so by holding educational meetings for lawmakers and energy-related organizations, performing polling and research on consumer expectations, as well as weighing in on regulatory proceedings.

“Customers First was originally formed 20 years ago when the state was considering restructuring the whole electric industry,” she said. “In the late 90s, we went through blackouts and brownouts and there was a major power shortage, so the state took its attention away from restructuring and moved on to reliability.”

The question, she said, was how to ensure the state has an “ample supply” of affordable power for customers.

“There’s always going to be a need to make sure that somebody is looking out for customers’ interests when it comes to affordable and reliable power, and that’s what we continue to do,” she said.

Customers First supports a regulated electric energy market, arguing that unregulated energy marketers will often give the best deals to high-volume customers while shifting costs onto lower volume users like households, farms and small businesses.

According to the group’s website, 14 of 28 states that enacted energy deregulation in the early 2000s have repealed and re-regulated, suspended their efforts or limited their participation. The site also claims that the removal of regulation leads to less stable power supply due to the loss of generation assets, as well as more consumer complaints.

Moreover, the average electricity rates in deregulated states are about 30 percent higher than states with traditional utility regulation, the site says.

“As we’ve looked at other states that underwent restructuring, they’ve had various levels of success but it hasn’t really worked well in those places, so that has given the group even more perspective on the current benefits of the regulatory model,” Gilkes said. “As we find issues where all of our members agree this is in the customers’ best interests, we help promote those issues; and conversely, when we see something that might harm customers, we give a heads up on that as well.”

The coalition’s membership includes Madison Gas and Electric, Dairyland Power Cooperative, WPPI energy, RENEW Wisconsin, the Citizens Utility Board, the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association and others.

“It’s a really diverse group, but that’s why I think when they reach agreement and they’re behind an issue, it really means something,” she said.

Gilkes most recently worked as a lobbyist for Alliant Energy. And though she has worked as a staffer for former Republican Rep. Phil Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the state GOP and for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s 2010 campaign, she says her new role puts her squarely in the middle of the aisle.

“I don’t think there’s a partisan slant at all,” she said. “So many energy issues are just nonpartisan, and you’ll find coalitions of supporters from both sides, it’s kind of refreshing that way.”

The coalition will be holding a free ‘Power Dialogue’ discussion-based event on Nov. 1 examining grid modernization.

“I think a lot of people struggle with what is grid modernization, what are people talking about, how do we define it, and are there benefits?” she said.

–By Alex Moe