In Wisconsin, we’ve lived under a social compact that allows utilities to have monopolies in exchange for being regulated in the public interest. The Public Service Commission has performed this essential function of our democracy for more than a century, but the system is on the brink of failure.
The regulators, charged with protecting the public from monopoly abuses, are now captured by the industries they regulate. Commissioner decisions seem to favor utility shareholders, executives, and the fossil-fuel lobby rather than the interests of everyday citizens. The most powerful staff position at the PSC, for example, is held by former Wisconsin Utility Investors’ executive director Bob Seitz.
To help restore some of the checks and balances that once existed, RePower Madison has been keeping watch on our local monopoly, Madison Gas and Electric Company. Keeping track of regulatory proceedings and filings, as well as public promises, is more than most utility customers have time for. So, to make these matters accessible to the public, RPM compiled our findings into an Energy Report Card.
Earning a “D+” overall, MGE’s grades are disappointing to everyone hoping Madison will become a national leader in clean energy with fair and affordable energy bills. The grade is based on MGE’s score in six categories: customer satisfaction (D), greenhouse gas pollution (D+), energy efficiency (C-), rates (D), renewable energy (C), and corporate behavior (D).
Using publicly available data, the report finds that MGE has the lowest customer satisfaction and the highest bills in the state. Raising monthly mandatory fees coincided exactly with a drastic drop in satisfaction, as MGE went from one of the top-rated utilities to near the bottom in customer satisfaction surveys performed annually by J.D. Power.
While MGE earned some credit for proclaiming its desire to be a “community energy company of the future,” many of MGE’s goals lack specificity and strong ambition. For instance, MGE’s goal for 2030 is to reduce greenhouse gas pollution 40 percent below 2005 levels. By comparison, Xcel Energy aims for a 60 percent cut.
MGE could achieve — and even exceed — its goal for renewable energy of 30 percent by 2030 by continuing to add renewable energy at the same rate it has since 2006. But business as usual will not be enough for our community, and certainly is not enough to be graded any better than average.
MGE pronounced many of these initiatives in its “Energy 2030 Framework” about a year ago. That framework is movement in the right direction, but a year has passed and MGE hasn’t set targets for most of its goals, and hasn’t yet turned the framework into a plan. Residential customers have seen no new energy efficiency programs, for example, despite MGE’s pledge to “increase energy efficiency and conservation,” and MGE even lobbied in favor of WI Act 299, which cut the statewide efficiency program, Focus on Energy, by $7.2 million annually.
Perhaps the most concerning is MGE’s grade (a “D”) in corporate behavior. The utility’s “Community Conversations” initiative showed great potential, but MGE has failed to deliver on promises. The central promise was to form a “Community Energy Partnership,” which would have increased citizen involvement in energy planning, but the company now refuses to honor its word.
Similarly, MGE’s current CEO, Gary Wolter, pledged to use community input to design rates, but then proposed no change to the monopoly’s unpopular mandatory fixed fees.
The investor-owned utility will see a transition in leadership in March. RePower Madison hopes that MGE’s incoming CEO, Jeffrey Keebler, will take steps immediately to improve MGE’s grade and the satisfaction of its customers.
Our community’s energy future should not be measured by shareholder dividends. We need a system that values our community’s well-being. Until such regulation is restored, RePower Madison will call on MGE to serve the public interest and will ask others to join us.
RePower Madison is a citizen group whose long-term goal is to spur MGE to implement a plan that reduces Madison’s dependence on fossil fuels while fostering economic development and equity. Mitch Brey is RePower Madison's campaign director.
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