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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The 350 Wisconsin’s Walking on Sunshine flash mob is photographed at the Dane County Farmers’ Market to promote clean energy.

Activists see frightening future for energy as Wisconsin utility rates increase

Major utility companies are proposing big changes to energy bills and solar energy.

October may be known for its scary movies and spooky vibes. But it’s also Energy Awareness Month, which can be equally as anxiety-inducing. 

Energy Awareness Month is a national movement aiming to “underscore how central energy is to our national prosperity, security and environmental well-being.”

However, big energy changes may be underway in southwest Wisconsin that could affect residents' utility bills and the future of solar energy.

This spring, Alliant Energy and Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) proposed increased rates for electricity and natural gas as well as changes to rooftop solar pricing, known as net metering. The proposals are currently under review by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSCW).

MGE, which manages the city of Madison’s public utility services, proposed a 1.5% electrical rate increase in 2024 followed by a 1.9% increase in 2025. This is down from their initial proposed rate increase of 3.5% in 2024. Natural gas rates would increase 2.27% in 2024 under the current provisions. 

In an email to The Daily Cardinal, MGE spokesperson Steve Schultz cited “lower anticipated fuel costs” as the cause for the decrease and said that the newest rates are in line with inflation. 

Alliant Energy, which services much of Dane County, proposed an 8.4% rate hike for electricity in 2024. It’s an increase of about $13 per month for the average family, according to Alliant. 

JP Brummond, Alliant Energy’s vice president of customer and community engagement, stated in an email that Alliant currently has the lowest electric rates in Wisconsin, “and we expect to remain among the lowest.” 

The increased rates will be used to make infrastructure improvements, he added.

“We’re taking action now in order to best manage costs, increase resiliency and build a stronger energy future,” Brummond said. 

Both rate increases raised alarms for activists worried about environmental justice and energy burden.

“With climate change, we're going to be seeing longer and more severe heat waves that are also going to put a burden on low-income families by increasing their energy bills.  These rate increases will exacerbate that,” Stephanie Robinson, a coordinating council member of 350 Wisconsin, told the Cardinal. 350 Wisconsin is a local climate action group who filed in opposition to MGE to the PSCW.

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The 350 Wisconsin Art Collaborative performed a flash mob at the Dane County Farmers’ Market to inspire others to get involved. They have been working to raise awareness of the impact these changes will have on all Madisonians, especially the disproportionate impact it will have on low-income communities. 

A 2023 study from 350 Madison found that in Madison, the average energy burden — the percent of household income spent on energy — for extremely low-income residents was 9%. An energy burden of 6% is considered high. 

“We'd like to see more support for improving the energy efficiency of homes,” Robinson said. “And we'd like to see [the PSCW] put a cap on energy burden at no more than 6%.” 

In addition to rate changes, proposals to change net metering policies concerned activists about the future of renewable energy access in the state. Net metering allows customers to be compensated for extra solar electricity they contribute to the grid, helping make up for the heavy upfront costs for rooftop solar installation.

In documents to the PSCW, MGE proposed transitioning to an hourly-based net metering system, which reduces the compensation rate from 14.8 cents per kilowatt hour to 7.5 cents for both residential and commercial users. The changes do not apply to existing customers. 

“Our proposed changes to net metering address consistency in net metering rates, regardless of the size of a system, and address affordability for all customers while adding to incentives already available for customers who choose to invest in rooftop solar,” Schultz said. 

RENEW Wisconsin, who filed in opposition to Alliant and MGE’s changes, said the changes would decrease rooftop solar adoption at a time when the state is aiming to be 100% carbon-free by 2050. 

Net metering is one of the most effective ways to increase rooftop solar adoption and decrease financial barriers, more than other incentive programs, a 2021 PSCW report found.

“[MGE’s proposal] makes the payback periods much, much longer, which in turn means that the only residents that are going to go solar… [are] affluent people,” Sam Dunaiski, executive director of RENEW, told the Cardinal. “We want to make rooftop solar available to anyone that needs it. The people that need them most are those low- and moderate-income customers who would benefit the most.”

Alliant Energy reversed its initial net metering proposal and is continuing net metering for two years until it transitions to a new program called the Power Partnership, leading RENEW to support Alliant’s proposal to the PSCW.

"Power Partnership preserves key aspects of net metering while creating new benefits," RENEW states on its website

Comment periods for both cases have closed. Negotiations are ongoing and proposals are subject to change. The PSCW is expected to finish reviewing the cases by the end of 2023.

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