Wisconsin has no coal or natural gas reserves of its own but that hasn’t stopped the fossil fuel industry from taking an interest in how electric utilities here collect money from their customers.
Most notable has been the involvement of the Consumer Energy Alliance, whose legal filing in support of controversial rate changes proposed by the Madison Gas & Electric and We Energies was just tossed out by state regulators.
A Houston-based group, CEA filed a petition with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission last month with names of 2,500 customers saying those ratepayers “believe every energy consumer should pay a fair share for maintaining the electrical grid.”
But after reviewing the petition and failing to get answers on how the names were gathered, PSC officials last week ruled the filing invalid and removed it from the public comments. The Capital Times had first reported that some of the customers whose names were included on the CEA petition were actually opposed to the rate changes.
The story caught the attention of the Huffington Post and reporter Kate Sheppard, who has been following the involvement of energy lobbyists in other electric rate cases nationally.
CEA president David Holt told the Huffington Post that the group didn't intend for its petition to be "specific to merits of any rate case" and instead it was about presenting "sensible, logical, balanced positions" on electricity. The group has since withdrawn its petition from the record, a moot point since the PSC had already ruled it invalid.
But Holt disputed any claims that the names on the petition were gathered in a misleading or incorrect manner.
"As we do with all these cases, we went back and reviewed our entire process and verified the authenticity of all the respondents and the accuracy of our whole process, so we're comfortable with that," he told the Huffington Post.
CEA, which is run through the Washington D.C. lobbying firm HBW Resources, has been called out in the past for “astroturfing,” which refers to corporate PR campaigns designed to look like grassroots citizen efforts.
Sheppard previously reported how Arizona Public Service, that state’s largest electric utility, had paid a national conservative group to run anti-solar ads after denying earlier in the year that it was funding the campaign. It is unclear who was backing CEA’s activities in Wisconsin, although both MGE and We Energies have denied any involvement.
Electric utilities nationwide are worried about the growth in solar energy production because that cuts into the amount of electricity that can be sold by the traditional power companies. The argument is that those solar customers don’t contribute their fair share to maintain the poles, wires and other infrastructure that carries electricity from the power plants to home and businesses.
Wisconsin generates a tiny amount of solar power and relies on burning coal and natural gas to generate over 70 percent of the state’s electricity. But renewable energy advocates say the fossil fuel industry is trying to head off any growth in solar here as a way to protect its market share.
A key issue before regulators is “net metering,” which refers to how much solar customers are paid for selling any excess power back into the electric grid. Wisconsin and 42 other states allow net metering but electric utilities have been pushing back on those policies in recent years.