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

Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr
Pleasant Prairie power plant, shown here in 2012, closed in 2018.

A small Wisconsin consumer group that’s originally inspired by activist Ralph Nader is turning 40 this year. An April 7 event will celebrate the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin’s (CUB) middle age. 

CUB frequently takes on electric power companies and water utilities over the issue of proposed rate hikes. CUB Executive Director Tom Content says utility bills can cost residential ratepayers hundreds of dollars per month, though not every consumer pays close attention.

"When people think about energy costs, they often think of gasoline prices because they can see the gas prices when they drive around town, and it's at almost every other intersection," Content says. He continues, "Your utility bill shows up once a month. Your water bill may only show up once a quarter. Do you really remember and sense it?"

He says CUB began in the late 1970's after Nader pushed nationally for consumer groups to represent residential ratepayers and small businesses in utility cases. Nader argued the groups were needed to offset more powerful utility companies, as well as manufacturers who had clout to fight back on some rate hikes. 

Content says CUB has survived various attacks since it was created by the Wisconsin Legislature, including a successful push by utilities to stop including CUB membership forms in utility bills. Content says, "Consumer activism — when you shout a lot about things you don't think fair for the average person — powerful interests can object to that."

"Your utility bill shows up once a month. Your water bill may only show up once a quarter. Do you really remember and sense it?"

He says a few years ago, the Wisconsin Legislature reduced the amount of a state grant that helps CUB hire expert witnesses for rate cases. But more recently, he says lawmakers restored most of the funding.

CUB acknowledges that electric bills in Wisconsin have gone up and are now the second highest in the Midwest. But he says CUB has made a dent in the increases and has saved consumers more than $3 billion on their utility bills since 2006. 

Looking ahead, Content expects much more debate on whether a growing use of power from renewable sources like solar energy, will cost consumers more. He says the cost of solar generation has been coming down.

Content also predicts battles over who pays the rest of the bill when utilities shut down coal-fired power plants early, such as the WE Energies Pleasant Prairie power plant that closed a year ago.

WE Energies is expected to formally propose a rate hike in early April, and Content says CUB will be prepared to challenge the company's claims, if needed.

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Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.