As many as 200 people converged on the state Public Service Commission’s offices Thursday to speak out about Madison Gas & Electric’s proposed rate hike.
Opponents far outnumbered supporters as the crowd occupied two hearing rooms and spilled out into the hallways for a public hearing on the proposal.
MGE’s rate plan — revised under an agreement with the Citizens Utility Board — would increase the standard monthly charge for all residential customers from the current $10.50 to $19 in 2015 while the cost of power use per kilowatt-hour would inch down from 14 cents to 13 cents in the winter and from 15 cents to 14 cents in the summer.
MGE has said the higher monthly charge would shift the cost of maintaining the electric transmission grid to the standard monthly charge; it’s currently figured into the kilowatt-hour charge.
Opponents said the change would penalize people who limit their energy use, particularly those on fixed incomes who already strain to pay their bills.
Attendee Mark Shults said MGE’s plan is just the beginning of a shift in the way utilities charge their customers. In five or 10 years, lower-income users may be paying more than half of their electric bill just to sustain the grid. He called the Madison utility’s proposal “an effort to desperately protect their business” as energy use declines, and suggested electric bills should be based solely on how much power the customer uses, eliminating the base rate.
MGE should be able to make money, said David Leeper, but, he added, it is “fundamentally wrong to decrease incentives to save energy.”
Jesse Pycha-Holst said when he asks his young son why the family turns off the lights when they leave a room, the boy replies that it saves energy. “He’s 4 years old, and he gets it. This proposal doesn’t,” Pycha-Holst said.
He said MGE has worked hard, over the years, to earn the community’s favor but the rate proposal “will take all that good will you have earned and put it in the smokestack.”
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Climate change is a real and serious problem, Steve Holaday said, and urged MGE and the PSC to encourage use of Wisconsin’s sun and wind resources. “Do what’s right for Wisconsin’s economy and the Earth’s climate,” Holaday said.
One speaker said he backs MGE’s plan because the electric grid, which sends power around the state and the Midwest, has to be properly maintained so everyone can have power whenever they need it.
Before the public hearing, more than 50 protesters staged a rally and marched along Whitney Way, chanting, “What do we want? Clean energy. When do we want it? Now,” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho; billing scheme has got to go.”
They gathered, holding signs that said, “MGE: More greedy energy,” in front of a black, inflatable power plant. The inflatable, hauled to the scene by bicycle, was puffed up using a blower that worked on batteries charged through wind power and maintained by energy from an old solar panel. It lasted for about an hour.
Thursday was the final day for comments to be submitted on MGE’s restructuring proposal. In addition to those who spoke or registered their opinions in writing at the public hearing, more than 500 written comments from the public were filed with the PSC this week alone.
“Comments gathered at today’s hearing will be part of a longer-term discussion we’ll have with customers. In the coming months, MGE will begin a comprehensive customer and community engagement focused on the Madison-area’s energy future,” said Steve Kraus, spokesman for the utility.
As part of the rate restructuring, MGE is seeking a 3.7 percent hike for electricity and a 2.1 percent reduction for natural gas in 2015. If approved, the bill for the average electric and gas customer would increase $1.66 a month, Kraus said.
A decision on MGE’s plan by the three-member Public Service Commission is not expected until late this year.