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Could We Energies be replaced by a publicly-owned utility? Saturday town hall will discuss idea

power lines
Chuck Quirmbach
A power pole and lines in Wauwatosa

On Thursday, Wisconsin regulators approved a rate hike for We Energies that the utility says will cost the typical residential customer an extra $11 or $12 a month in electricity, and $5 a month in natural gas costs.

Saturday morning, a previously-scheduledtown hall meeting at the Washington Park Senior Center in Milwaukee will take a look at whether a publicly-owned utility or cooperative can replace We Energies.

That's right, replace the private, investor-owned local gas and electric utility for much of southeast Wisconsin with one owned by Milwaukee residents and the community.

It's not an unusual idea, says Alex Brower of the Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America. He says there's a whole chapter of Wisconsin Statutes — Chapter 197 — that allows municipal acquisition of utilities.

The American Public Power Association has more than eighty members in Wisconsin, including Manitowoc Public Utilities.

Brower says the We Energies rate case is one example of why Milwaukee ought to give public power a try.

Thursday's Public Service Commission of Wisconsin meeting.
Thursday's Public Service Commission of Wisconsin meeting, at which a rate hike for We Energies was approved.

"We are asking the question, who makes those decisions to even ask for a rate increase? The public should be involved when we decide whether we need to pay more for electricity or not," Brower tells WUWM.

We Energies has more than 2,500 employees. Brower says the Socialists are not out to replace the people operating the power plants and maintaining the power grid.

He says, "The issue is more the management of We Energies than the workers themselves. They're, in our opinion, doing a great job, and we want to support them and expand what they have."

The Socialists shouldn't count on management cooperation with their plan. A We Energies spokesperson declined our offer for an interview, but released a statement saying, "There are customer savings, efficiencies and storm response capabilities that We Energies has, as part of a larger network. Those typically would not be available to a municipally-owned utility. We Energies has served Milwaukee for more than 125 years, and looks forward to future decades of providing customers across the city affordable, reliable and clean energy."

We asked a spokesperson for Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson if the mayor has a muni-owned power company on his radar screen. No was the reply.

But Brower maintains that cutting the profit motive out of power production is the way to go. He's promising a multi-year effort to get a muni-owned power company or electric co-op going in Milwaukee.

TheWisconsin Electric Cooperative Associationsays co-ops are consumer-owned and not-for profit. There are 24 electric distribution co-ops in the state, serving more than a quarter-million farms, residences and businesses.

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