Milwaukee campaign to replace We Energies with municipal utility grows
Last year saw soaring energy costs and an 11% rate hike for residential customers of We Energies, which services most of southeastern Wisconsin. Now, calls are growing for Milwaukee to replace the private, investor-owned utility with a municipal one.
On a recent Friday afternoon, a crowd gathered outside City Hall. They delivered a thick stack of nearly 2,000 signed petitions to the Common Council, each saying they want a municipal utility in Milwaukee.
The Power to the People campaign represents several progressive groups, including Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America, North Side Rising, and the Greater Milwaukee Green Party. Also attending the rally were Milwaukee Democratic Reps. Ryan Clancy and Darrin Madison. They say a utility should be accountable to the people it serves, not shareholders.
“It’s time that we start putting people before profits,” said Andre Walton, executive director of Our Wisconsin Revolution, at the rally. “Food, water, energy are all commodities that every human needs to survive. Yet, we allow private corporations to determine the cost of living.”
Greg Brown, an organizer with Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America, chairs the campaign. He said removing profit from the equation should lower costs for customers. On average, according to the American Public Power Association, public power costs less than investor-owned utilities across the country.
“I've talked to folks who, and have literally told me, ‘I'm out on the street because of my issues with We Energies,’” Brown said. “‘I can't afford my bill. So I'm out on the streets.’”
Brown also said when climate change is raising the stakes, the profit motive is slowing We Energies’ transition to clean energy sources like wind and solar.
“We have to be in the room to make the change because the people who are in the room now are not the change,” he said. “It’s probably not going to come until the people in Milwaukee have the access to call for it. It’s just too lucrative otherwise.”
In a statement, We Energies spokesperson Brendan Conway said Milwaukee energy bills remain below the national average. He pointed to procurement capabilities, experienced storm response crews, and technical expertise — benefits We Energies can offer as part of a larger network.
Conway added that We Energies is “aggressively supporting” the city and state’s climate goals, with clean energy projects — and plans to phase out fossil fuel plants — expected to save customers nearly $2 billion over the next 20 years.
Conway said, “These benefits would be virtually impossible to replicate through municipalization.”
The utility cited battery storage and new solar and natural gas generation in its rate case last year, frustrating advocates who said the utility is forcing the costs of a clean energy transition onto low-income residents. That’s amid a delay to shutter the coal-fired Oak Creek Power Plant, which We Energies will run through late 2025.
“If we had democratic decision-making, we could make a decision about when to close that plant and have a just transition for all those workers into other parts of the energy sector,” said Alex Brower, co-chair of Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America. “We could move closer to being carbon-free.”
Public utilities aren’t new: More than 2,000 operate across the U.S., including Manitowoc in Wisconsin, Los Angeles, and the state of Nebraska. But, as advocates seek justice in the energy system, demand for public power has grown nationwide.
The Power to the People campaign points to chapter 197 of the Wisconsin state statutes — a legacy of Milwaukee’s so-called “sewer socialists” — that would allow for the city to acquire the utility. Brower said the law outlines a process for the acquisition, which would involve the city of Milwaukee purchasing the infrastructure from We Energies, at a price determined by the Public Service Commission.
Keviea Guiden serves on the committee for the campaign. She said the energy burden facing many Black and Latinx households in Milwaukee is a legacy of nearly century-old redlining, which designated neighborhoods as more or less desirable for loan-financing.
“Guess where the less desirable area’s at? Milwaukee,” said Guiden, who is also the energy burden organizer for Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “These are the older homes. These are the energy-inefficient homes. These are the homes that are not weatherized. These are the homes that have leaks and cracks in them, so this is what makes us pull more energy to keep the homes warmer.”
These inequities offer a look at how racial capitalism plays out. That’s according to Phil Warsaw, an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s department of community sustainability. He recently published research on the connections between COVID-19, redlining, and energy security in Milwaukee.
Warsaw found that maps of historical redlining closely overlapped with early COVID-19 hotspots, which largely occurred in communities of color. Those same areas also had higher energy burdens and more air pollution.
“If you look at the way the system is working, most of the people of color are at the bottom, and it’s because ‘they’re inferior,’ right? So it’s not the issue of capitalism,” said Warsaw, explaining why some scholars view racism as central to the workings of U.S. capitalism. “It’s a way of papering over this inherent inequality that’s part of capitalism.”
As the movement for energy independence grows, Warsaw said the challenge will be balancing the moving parts of a complicated economy.
“You also have to think about what that means down the line,” he said. “That means we also need to be thinking about affordable housing, healthcare — all these different things to ensure that people are actually benefiting from the interventions that are meant to help their lives.”
Advocates like the leaders of the Power to the People campaign see public power as the solution because it should give people a say over how and where energy is produced. And ultimately, move away from negative health outcomes like those Warsaw describes.
The Milwaukee organizers said the signatures they collected represent just the start of the movement they’re building.