Wisconsin’s PSC Rebrands Itself

Progressive and Moderate - The Motive Spirit
By Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission was an early Progressive era idea created to regulate greedy railroads and, later, the monopoly utilities. Wisconsin was the first state to develop this sort of regulatory body, but today the Wisconsin PSC seems to be operating nearly exactly backwards. Call it instead the CSP: Conniving in Shareholder Prosperity.

On Friday the CSP (PSC) gathered in Madison to announce its thoughts regarding WE Energies’ suggestion that the Commission allow it to raise the fixed monthly costs for residential customers by 75% and cut back on what it pays home solar users for their extra power. In other words, the for-profit energy corporation wants to ensure a steadier profit, and wants to do so by raising fixed costs on those who use less energy (the public and the poor) and those who create their own independent clean energy. In exchange, there would be a slight decrease in the residential electric rate.

And whom did the Gov. Walker-appointed commissioners agree with? Generally, not the public they are supposed to serve. Commissioners Phil Montgomery and Ellen Nowak ruled that it is indeed “fair” that residents pay a higher fixed rate (while big corporations pay a lower one in 2015) and it is perfectly just for solar net metering customers to pay more for the privilege of helping provide the utility with clean energy it can distribute to all.

Commissioner Eric Callisto called his colleagues’ decision “silly”, a civil response under the circumstances.

WE Energies did not get everything it wanted, including killing the growth of home-grown solar power by banning third-party leasing of solar panels. Such a ruling would have been too obvious an attack on solar power.

But Montgomery and Nowak ruled it was not fair to make WE Energies, that underprivileged monopoly, return $42 million to ratepayers after it tried to shut down its Presque Isle plant when its biggest customer, an iron ore mine, bought power elsewhere. WE Energies was then paid to keep the plant open by the Midwest power grid operators.  Callisto called this case of double recovery a “$42 million gift.” As Kira Loehr of the Citizens Utility Board said, “Its shareholders don’t need more handouts at the expense of ratepayers, and that money should be returned to customers.”  Just another case of the rich getting richer at the hands of state government.

When Commissioner Phil Montgomery was appointed to chair the PSC by Gov. Walker in March of 2011, Walker stated that “Phil will help to protect ratepayers.” Walker also said that “Holding down the cost of producing energy will be a key part of ensuring Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs.” So far, that business-climate plan hasn’t worked. What’s being protected and ensured is utility profits.

At the time Montgomery was appointed, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that he was a former Wisconsin State Representative who served on the energy and utilities committee and also served on the board of directors of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  In fact, Montgomery was voted ALEC “Legislator of the Year” in 2005.  (No wishy-washy conservative he.)  Here’s how the Journal Sentinel reporter described ALEC: “a national organization that works on development of state-level polices that promote limited government, free markets and federalism.” Well, that is pretty much how ALEC spins itself on its website.

ALEC actually is, reports the Center for Media and Democracy, a vast network of conservative legislators and corporate representatives almost entirely funded by corporations and conservative foundations, including Milwaukee’s own Bradley Foundation. ALEC concocts models of corporate-friendly bills which state legislators can use and introduce; why should corporations merely contribute to conservative campaigns when they can help write the legislation themselves? Corporations get efficiency and legislators get convenience (and sometimes free trips!) It’s a win-win.  Commissioner Montgomery’s PSC profile does not mention his ALEC connections.

ALEC and the for-profit utility lobbyist Edison Electric Institute (WE Energies is a member) have been linked to a scheme to squelch solar net metering, a plan much like the one WE Energies proposed and the PSC approved. Has our local mainstream media reported on this? Not that I’ve noticed.

Commissioner Ellen Nowak has publicly questioned the EPA’s carbon emission rule and scientific/economic analysis, claiming the rule will have dire economic effects for Wisconsin. In the same interview with Steven Walters of WisconsinEye, Walters asks Nowak if the PSC takes an official position on climate change science. Nowak says no, but says her personal feeling is that “the jury is still out”, that the science is “still debatable.” But this is not what scientists overwhelmingly say.   Her lack of faith in climate science makes one wonder how objectively and effectively Nowak can perform her prominent regulatory role.

Or since all things “progressive” are now frowned upon, let’s rebrand the PSC to something more in keeping with its new “moderate” mission: Public Subsidiary, inCorporated.

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