Three Wisconsin utilities propose electric rate hikes

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Thousands of people could see their monthly electric bills rise by at least several dollars next year if state regulators approve rate-increase requests from three Wisconsin utilities.

Madison Gas and Electric, We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service Corporation officials say the increases are designed to ensure that everyone — not just major energy consumers — pays their share for maintaining electrical infrastructure.

The plans have outraged consumer advocates and renewable energy supporters, who maintain the proposals are designed to recoup revenue lost through conservation and punish low-usage customers, such as people with solar panels or on fixed incomes. They've mounted an aggressive public relations campaign to discredit the requests; the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association even hired former Green Bay Packer Mark Tauscher as a spokesman.

"It doesn't make a ton of sense," Tauscher said. "You wouldn't think you'd be penalized for using less."

MGE, which serves about 143,000 customers in Dane County, wants to increase its fixed monthly rate from $10.44 to $19, a jump of 155 percent — by far the utility's largest increase in the last decade.

We Energies serves about 1.1 million customers in southeastern Wisconsin and the Fox Valley. It wants to increase its fixed rate from $9.13 to $16, a 169 percent jump. That would be the largest increase since at least 2005.

WPSC, which serves about 443,700 customers in northeastern and north-central Wisconsin, wants to increase its fixed rate from $10.40 to $25. That's an increase of 245 percent, the largest in at least the last 10 years.

All three companies' proposals call for reducing their usage fee by a couple cents an hour, but consumers would have to up their usage dramatically to offset the fixed rate hikes. The reduced usage fees also would mean reduced savings for solar users. If they generate a kilowatt hour of energy for their home, they'd save more cents per hour under the current rates.

MGE spokesman Steve Schultz said that utility has decided to amend its proposal to keep rates unchanged for current solar users until 2029 in an agreement with the Wisconsin Citizens Utility Board to ensure that entity won't oppose the rate package.

The utilities say the increases are about fairness. Users who consume more energy have been bearing more of the cost for maintaining infrastructure such as power plants and transmission poles than low-end users, they say; the new rate plan evens things out.

About 30 people picketed outside a public hearing on MGE's proposal last week, holding up signs that read "MGE Doesn't Care, Billing Scheme Isn't Fair" and "MGE — More Greedy Energy."

Seventy-year-old Don Hammes of Middleton testified that the utility's plan will make life harder for the poor and older people on fixed incomes since they wouldn't be able to control their bills by turning off the lights.

"There's no way to cope with (the fixed rate increase)," he said after the hearing. "You have to cut back on groceries or gasoline for your car or whatever."

The state Public Service Commission is expected to make a decision in all three requests before the end of the year. Commission spokesman Nathan Conrad said its members can't comment because they don't want to influence each other's perspectives.

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