Wisconsin regulators have agreed to gather more information on the clean energy transition while passing up a range of suggested policy changes that could speed the state’s shift from fossil fuels.
The Public Service Commission voted Thursday to explore the use of different rate structures, energy efficiency programs and issues of customer affordability and changes to the current planning process, while continuing to encourage utilities to experiment with new technologies and policies.
The vote was in response to dozens of comments from utilities, advocacy groups, academics and individuals on the commission’s role in overseeing the transition to a carbon-free energy sector by 2050, which Gov. Tony Evers has called for and is in line with what scientists say will be needed to limit potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change.
With utilities seeking to spend billions of dollars building wind, solar and battery storage systems to replace coal-fired power plants, commissions agreed they need a better understanding of the cost and ramifications.
But state lawmakers in 1997 did away with a requirement for utilities to submit detailed long-range generation plans, replacing it with a more generic planning process.
“All of the largest utilities have their own sort of roadmap. … Everybody’s thinking about these topics,” said PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq. “This is a way for us to stay abreast of what’s happening in the absence of an integrated resource plan.”
Commissioner Ellen Nowak, the commission’s lone Republican appointee, questioned the premise of the investigation, dubbed the “Roadmap to Zero Carbon.”
“Operating the grid with zero carbon as we know it now is a dangerous thing,” she said. “A roadmap to zero carbon is the wrong road to go down. I think we need to go down a road to cleaner energy.”
Most industry experts, including the International Energy Agency, believe it’s possible today to cut carbon emissions by about 80% from 2005 levels without compromising service reliability, though eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions will require technologies not yet commercially viable.
The 10th such solar project considered by Wisconsin regulators, the project highlights the tensions brewing as Wisconsin utilities seek to replace coal-fired power with clean energy.
“We don’t have a plan to get to literal zero carbon by 2050,” said Commissioner Tyler Huebner. “But we don’t need to solve that today.”
Valcq said the commission has both the jurisdiction and responsibility to continue gathering data and evaluating alternatives. However, she stopped short of endorsing some of the recommended policy changes, including calls to begin phasing out the use of natural gas for heating and generation.
Valcq said she supports an “all of the above” energy policy.
“I don’t view this in any way, shape or form as us as a body saying natural gas is dead,” Valcq said.
Huebner said looking at natural gas would be “a great step two … both for carbon and reliability, as we saw down in Texas,” a reference to the February cold snap that left millions without heat and light.
The commission opened the zero-carbon investigation in March, soliciting comments from utilities, special interest groups and the public.
Commission staff identified five general priority areas within commission jurisdiction where there were opportunities to act and value to addressing questions up front: resource planning; performance-based regulation; pilot programming; energy efficiency; and customer affordability.
The commission agreed to explore whether the current strategic energy assessment, a two-year analysis of the state’s energy needs and the ability of utilities to meet it, could be augmented to include more detailed resource planning.
Opponents of the 102-mile line from Dubuque to Middleton last week withdrew demands to question Huebsch and examine his phone, although they have reserved the right to call Huebsch as a witness in court.
The PSC will also hold an industry workshop on performance-based regulation, through which it also intends to address questions of affordability.
Commissioners agreed to continue supporting pilot programs on a case-by-case basis and to consider modifications to Focus on Energy, the ratepayer-funded energy efficiency program — such as aligning energy savings with carbon reduction — during the next four-year planning process, which is already underway and will set priorities for 2023-2026.