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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

We Energies Proposes Rate Increases, Critics Speak Out

Susan Bence
While the room wasn't filled to capacity at Tuesday's public hearing, most of those who spoke opposed We Energies' proposed rate increase.

We Energies says it's time to increase its electric rates. But critics say customers will be paying more while the utility remains too reliant on polluting energy sources like coal.

Seven months ago, We Energies submitted its rate-increase request to the Public Service Commission (PSC), the state body that regulates utilities. The original We Energies' proposal would have increased the average customer's rate by about $3 a month in 2020 and another $3 a month in 2021.

But spokesperson Brendan Conway says the plan changed after meeting with organizations, including RENEW Wisconsin and the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin.

READ: One Group's Battle To Help Wisconsinites Keep Their Energy Bills Down Continues After 40 Years

Conway says together they reached a compromise: "[A] 1.3% increase in 2020 and no increase in 2021. So that works out to be about $3 a month." He adds that the rates haven't increased in four years. 

The utility's critics say, despite the compromise, We Energies cares most about the financial return and far less about its impact the environment. Conway disputes the notion. While We Energies has plans to increase its renewable energy portfolio, he says it's premature and dangerous to throw away existing power generation sources.

"Just this year, when the polar vortex hit Wisconsin, wind turbines across the Midwest, including in Wisconsin, couldn't run. So without our coal plants, our natural gas units, we would have had a hard time keeping the heat and the lights on. Remember that – 50 degree below zero windchills. Coulda had a hard time keeping the heat on if not for plants like the Oak Creek Plant," Conway says.

He says the utility is committed to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions 40% by 2040 and to hit 80% by 2050.

"We already own the largest two largest wind plants in Wisconsin. We have about 300 megawatts of proposed solar projects either in-ground or on roofs right now, and proposed in front of the PSC," Conway says.

Credit Susan Bence
Jill Ferguson says she absolutely rejects the proposal.

But inside the public hearing Tuesday at the United Community Center at South 9th Street, many people didn't seem to buy the company's environmental pledge, pointing to the nearby We Energies coal-burning power plant. West Allis resident Jill Ferguson blackened her hand to illustrate her point.

"Clean coal is dirty lie. There's no such thing but they're pushing off as a solution and it's not. And I absolutely reject the demand that we pay more to make our children ill, to create more asthma," Ferguson says. "So I absolutely reject this proposal. It's absolutely nonsensical to me.

Milwaukee County resident Susan Modder not only worries about human health, but the impacts of the Oak Creek Power Plant to Lake Michigan. 

"[Lake Michigan] is still being polluted by We Energies release of mercury. Mercury in trout and white fish in Lake Michigan has increased by 20%. Here's where it gets personal: I already feel complicit in the pollution of Lake Michigan by being a customer of We Energies and paying my electric bill," Mater says. "It's astounding unacceptable to me and many others that We Energies is proposing this rate increase and continuing business as usual."

Thomas Seery struck a philosophical note. He urges the Public Service Commission to think beyond this single rate increase decision — to the urgency of acting on climate change.

"I don't know if the Public Service Commission is reviewing the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We have until 2030 to really do something. We Energies is saying it's going to be 80% fossil-free renewable energy by 2050. That's not acceptable. That's just too late."

A sense of urgency did not factor into Dan Bukiewicz's perspective. He's mayor of Oak Creek — the city in which We Energies controversial coal burning power plant resides. He says We Energies has been a great community partner.

"When it comes to the Public Service Commission, they set the rates based on the average. I have faith that the PSC will do what's right," Bukiewicz says.

The PSC is holding another set of hearings Thursday in Green Bay. The public comment period ends on Friday.

Officials say they aren't sure when the PSC will vote on We Energies' proposed rate increase, saying its commissioners will consider public concerns in their final decision. They will need time to wade through all of the comments.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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