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Prepare for higher heating costs this winter

Brace yourselves for higher heating bills this winter, Wisconsin.

Wisconsin utilities and the Energy Information Administration are warning of higher heating costs this winter given natural gas prices that are twice what they were a year ago.

Depending on how severe the winter is, households could pay hundreds of dollars more this winter compared with last winter, when natural gas prices were much lower.

We Energies said its customers can expect an increase of $25 a month, and Wisconsin Public Service, based in Green Bay, warned that heating costs could be up $40 a month, during the winter, assuming normal weather.  Customers of Madison Gas & Electric can expect increases in the range of $25 to $30 a month. The cost for Xcel Energy customers may be even higher, at $45 to $65 a month. And the federal Energy Information Administration is also warning of much higher prices this winter, for the November-through-March heating season, for customers using natural gas or propane for heat.

The latest spot prices from the natural gas markets indicate that prices are much higher than they’ve been in years. And that’s on top of increases customers in Wisconsin are already seeing because of the cascading effects from the February winter storm that prompted homes across Texas to go without power for a week.

The impact of the winter storm Uri was felt as far away as the Upper Midwest because of spikes in natural gas prices caused by the sudden shutdown of natural gas pipeline infrastructure that hadn’t been properly winterized. Federal energy regulators last month urged utilities and natural gas pipeline operators to take steps to ensure that energy equipment is winterized.

The state Public Service Commission allows natural gas utilities to recover the cost of their equipment, such as mains and meters, but the price of the gas itself is not regulated by the PSC nor by the federal government. Those prices rise and fall based on market supply and demand conditions. CUB focuses much of its advocacy on the electric side of utility costs, because is able to have more impact there in keeping increases in check.

The surging prices come at a time when many Wisconsinites are still struggling as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. How high heating costs go will depend on several factors, especially how frigid the temperatures get and whether energy markets continue to see price spikes.

Prices have spiked in part because of a resurgence of economic activity and in part because of global conditions and increasing exports of natural gas.

Customers who are struggling financially are eligible for energy assistance, and Congress has appropriated more money this year to help homeowners and renters who are behind on their utility bills. Wisconsin has rental and mortgage assistance programs to help consumers, and both of those programs can help with utility bills for struggling customers.

Surging natural gas prices can also be expected to hit customers on the electricity side of their utility bills. The Public Service Commission will be finalizing cases in the months ahead that will set electric rates and fuel costs for the Wisconsin utilities for 2022. Natural gas prices affect these costs because of large power plants that burn natural gas to make electricity.

To the extent they can, customers should take steps now to plan for looming increases. In light of these increase, the time may be right to take a second look at whether to move ahead with a project to add insulation or upgrade to a more efficient furnace.

CUB urges customers to take advantage of Focus on Energy rebates that can help homeowners and renters save this winter if they add some insulation before the cold snaps hit. Here are some tips to consider if you have some money to spend to make some upgrades:

  • Add more insulation or upgrade your furnace. Add extra insulation to make your home more comfortable and efficient. Focus on Energy has incentives available for attic insulation and air sealing. Plus, Focus offers heating and cooling rebates if you’re looking to upgrade your equipment to a more efficient unit. Some utilities, such as Xcel Energy, and some cities, such as the City of Milwaukee through its Me2 program, offer enhanced incentives to bring down the cost even further.
  • Consider getting an energy audit to identify opportunities to make your home more energy efficient and comfortable. This is especially helpful if your home feels drafty or your energy bills seem higher than average. Focus on Energy trade allies can help with you by coming out to perform a home energy assessment. Find a trade ally near you.
  • Adjust your thermostat to match the changing temperatures. When you need to turn the heat on, set the thermostat to 68 degrees and turn it down further when you are asleep or away. Adjust a degree at a time as necessary to balance comfort and energy savings.
  • Service your furnace or boiler now to make sure it runs efficiently as the weather starts to cool down. Regularly replace furnace filters to keep your furnace running efficiently. Some utilities offer additional incentives to have your furnace serviced.
  • Take advantage of the sun. On cool days, open your curtains and blinds throughout the day to allow sunlight to naturally heat your home. Close curtains when the sun goes down to keep heat from leaking through your windows. Consider adding energy-saving thermal insulation curtains.
  • Cook and bake efficiently. Use lids on pots and pans to reduce cooking time. Bake multiple things at once. Use crockpots and microwaves to save energy.
  • Keep fridge and freezers full but not crowded. If your fridge or freezer is empty, fill milk jugs with water to fill up space, and throw out old food if your fridge or freezer is too full. Unplugging that second fridge or freezer can help you save.
  • Inspect and clean your fireplace. Make sure your fireplace is safe before using. Close fireplace dampers when you are not using the fireplace to prevent heat from escaping.
  • Turn off electronics not in use. Electronics that are not being used should be turned off completely to save energy, particularly for televisions, game consoles and home offices.  A great idea for TVs, DVD’s and game consoles as well as home office equipment is to plug into power strips and turn the power strip off.

MG&E Settlement: Clear Wins for Customers Include $4 Drop in Fixed Fee, $2 Million in Savings

MADISON – The Citizens Utility Board announced significant wins for Madison Gas & Electric’s residential and small business customers in a rate settlement filed with the Public Service Commission.

Among the wins:

  • $2 MILLION PER YEAR IN SAVINGS: The size of the overall increase customers would face is $2 million per year below what MGE first proposed. CUB negotiated to have $900,000 in adjustments by Public Service Commission auditors accepted by the utility and then achieved an extra $1.1 million in savings over and above those adjustments.
  • LOWER MONTHLY FIXED FEES: In a significant win, MGE’s residential electric facilities charge or fixed customer charge, will drop by $4 a month, or 21%, by 2023. MGE was at the center of a heated controversy seven years ago when they sought to shift most of their revenues to the fixed charge rather than the energy charge.

MGE customers were frustrated by the massive fixed charge increases sought in in 2014. CUB members and others wanted us to keep pushing against higher fixed charges. MG&E’s fixed charge for electricity customers, currently the second highest in the state, will drop from $19 today to $17 in January and $15 in 2023, if the PSC approves the settlement.

“The reduction we negotiated will greatly improve the way rates are structured and will allow customers to control their electricity use to help them save energy and money,” said Tom Content, executive director of CUB.

“CUB’s been holding the line since 2017, keeping fixed charges from surging higher, but with this settlement we were able to get real savings for all customers plus a meaningful 21% drop in the customer charge,” he said.

CUB also reached a settlement this year with Xcel Energy’s Eau Claire utility that will reduce fixed charges for Xcel customers by 12% over the next two years. Xcel Energy’s electric fixed charge would drop from $17 a month today to $15 a month in January 2023. By 2023, MG&E, along with Xcel and Alliant Energy, will have the lowest big-utility fixed charges in the state.

CUB’s negotiations led to other innovative concepts that MGE is proposing for residential and small businesses hard hit by the economic impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These include:

  • A pilot program for low-income customers that will provide free thermostats to a group of low-income customers and enroll them in MG&E’s “Bring Your Own Device” demand response program that helps achieve savings for the utility and customers alike.
  • An expansion of the Bring Your Own Device program to enable thousands more Madison area homeowners and renters to save energy and money when asked to reduce usage by the utility on hot summer days.
  • A small business economic recovery program, targeted for Madison small businesses, providing those looking to open or re-open a business with an approximately 22% discount on electricity bills for one year.

“From CUB’s perspective, utility rates overall are too high, small customers are paying more than their share of utility costs, small businesses need a hand recovering from COVID, and low-income customers should have access to energy efficiency measures like smart thermostats,” said Tom Content, CUB executive director. “That is why CUB believes that the settlement negotiated with MGE, in cooperation with the other settling parties, is a good deal for residential and small business customers.”

An increase in overall rates in 2022 was unavoidable largely because bill credits linked to corporate tax rate reductions are set to expire at the end of 2021. But CUB also worked for a “fair splitting of the pie,” to ensure small businesses and residential customers weren’t unreasonably paying costs that should be borne by large customers.

CUB always has to weigh whether litigating a rate case will be more effective than negotiating across the table from a utility.

“CUB knows that you can present the best arguments and best evidence in litigation, but at the end of the day it’s a roll of the dice,” said Corey Singletary, CUB’s director of regulatory affairs. “The settlement agreement give certainty to utility customers. “There are big wins for residential and small business customers that will bring real dollars and cents benefits over the next two years. This better positions CUB and Wisconsin’s residential and small business customers as we fight for safe, reliable, and affordable rates in the years to come.”

CUB is the sole customer advocate for all residential and small business customers of Wisconsin’s electric, natural gas and water utilities. CUB advocates for affordable, reliable, and safe utility service and fair policies for customers.

CUB Annual Report 2020

Making Strides in a Tough Year: CUB Releases Annual Report, Announces Annual Meeting

CUB’s annual report highlights savings for customers, advocacy for those less fortunate during the pandemic and our work to position CUB for stability and strength in the years ahead.

The 2020 Annual Report, available here, provides a snapshot of what Your Independent Consumer Voice worked on during the pandemic.

The report thanks loyal CUB members who helped CUB manage through challenging times after a wrenching funding cut in 2015, and discusses the transformation that’s been under way for the last few years to move consumer advocacy for utility customers forward.

CUB will provide an overview of 2020 accomplishments and progress so far this year during its virtual Annual Meeting and quarterly Board of Directors meeting, this Thursday, Sept. 2, at 2 p.m. CUB members and the Wisconsin utility customers are welcome to attend, using this link.

Among the highlights:

  •            CUB’s advocacy at the Public Service Commission yielded more than $150 million in savings for Wisconsin utility customers in 2020.
  •            Act 24, passed in early 2021 by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Tony Evers, provides a better, more sustainable funding model for CUB, one that will accomplish more for customers in the years ahead.
  •            CUB urged the PSC to obtain better data on household energy burdens. In response, the PSC required utilities to file more detailed county-by-county data on household energy burden. CUB also collaborated with utilities on forgiveness programs for customers struggling the most.
  •            The clean energy transition is changing how we get our energy, but the utilities’ path forward won’t necessarily be the most cost-effective. The road to a cleaner energy future must  be affordable and give consumers more options on how they power their homes and businesses.
  •            CUB welcomes its newest board member, Heather Goetsch. Goetsch, a resident of Whitefish Bay, is associate director of the U.S. Green Building Council, focusing primarily on individual membership development. She’s looking forward to helping CUB expand its capacity in the areas of outreach and engagement in the years ahead. Heather was elected to a three-year term. The remaining members of the board are Eileen Hannigan, Madison; John Hendrick, Madison; Joel Dresang, Shorewood; Carol Stemrich, Verona; and Andrew Hartinger, Wauwatosa.

April 1, 2021: Consumer Advocacy Takes Leap Forward As Gov. Evers Signs Bipartisan PSC Bill into Law

MADISON, APRIL 1, 2021 — The Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin on Thursday released the following statement after Gov. Tony Evers signed Assembly Bill 27 into law as Wisconsin Act 24. The law, which the Legislature passed with unanimous bipartisan support this month, enables stable funding for CUB’s work as the consumer advocate for homeowners, renters and small business utility customers in Wisconsin.

“Today marks the biggest step forward for consumer advocacy in Wisconsin since 1979, when the Legislature passed the original bill fulfilling Ralph Nader’s vision by creating CUB,” said Tom Content, CUB Executive Director. “With stable funding, CUB will be better positioned as it works to level the playing field between utility shareholders and customers involving multi-billion-dollar decisions made by state regulators.”

The new law enables CUB to seek Public Service Commission approval for up to $900,000 a year in funding from residential and small business customers of Wisconsin’s investor-owned utilities, at a cost of less than 2 pennies a month on a customer’s electric bill.

Wisconsinites will still be paying less than their Midwestern counterparts for consumer advocacy. But, this boost will enable CUB to hire a staff attorney and analysts to evaluate utilities’ finances and proposals to increase customer costs, and represent Wisconsin residents and small businesses more effectively over a broader range of utility issues.

“Act 24 was needed to resolve an unintended consequence of a 2018 law that restricted CUB’s ability to hire national consultants to advocate for customer interests. With Act 24, CUB can build a nimbler team that will produce millions in savings for customers in the years ahead,” Content said.

CUB anticipates that Act 24 will also provide the opportunity for more consumer outreach and education on energy costs and energy choices, as well as increased advocacy on behalf of low-income customers who have been hit hard by COVID-19 economic challenges.

“It’s been quite a journey for CUB to get to this day. There were concerns that residential and small business customers would be left without a voice after the Legislature slashed funding for CUB six years ago,” Content said. “But strong support from our loyal members sustained us, and a collaborative approach with utilities, regulators and others has borne fruit, leading to the funding stability enabled by Act 24.”

“I appreciate that Gov. Evers supported our work as the Wisconsin consumer advocate by including the CUB funding modernization plan in his 2021-23 state budget proposal as a backstop to AB 27,” Content said. “CUB wishes to thank the leaders and members of the Assembly and Senate utilities committees for their work shepherding the PSC Omnibus Bill, which won unanimous approval in both committees as well as the full Legislature.”

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic difficulties it’s created for many, CUB appreciates the steps taken by the Evers administration to direct aid to small businesses and renters hard hit by the pandemic, including a new Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a plan to create a low-income assistance program for water utility customers and the Governor’s announcement this week of $600 million in support for small businesses.

“Given the expiration of the disconnection moratorium on April 15, CUB calls on Wisconsin utilities to work proactively with customers who are behind on their bills,” Content said. “And we encourage the Evers administration to allocate funds to help customers pay significant past-due energy and water bills,” Content said.

Legislature Passes Bill to Strengthen Advocacy for Residential, Small Business Utility Customers

A plan to help level the playing field between consumers and utilities when it comes to advocacy for fairness and affordability is on the way to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk, after the state Senate unanimously endorsed it in a voice vote Tuesday.

The bill, AB 27 and SB 47, received widespread bipartisan support, with unanimous votes in the Legislature’s utilities committees as well as the state Assembly and Senate. The bill creates a new funding model for the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, the state’s consumer advocate for residential and small business utility customers.

“Wisconsin homeowners, renters and small businesses will now have an even more effective consumer advocate working on their behalf in the years ahead,” said Tom Content, CUB’s executive director. “I want to thank the bill’s authors, state Rep. Mike Kuglitsch and state Sen. Julian Bradley, as well as PSC Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq, for their tireless efforts to advance this legislation that strengthens CUB’s advocacy for Wisconsin citizens and businesses. I’d also like to thank Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who was a co-author of the 2020 version of this bill.”

Under the bill, CUB can apply for up to $900,000 a year in ratepayer funding, through a process overseen by the Public Service Commission, to help support its advocacy work. This would replace an annual $300,000 PSC grant. The funding would enable CUB to expand its regulatory team negotiating across the table from utilities to achieve rate settlements that benefit customers.

The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Evers, who previously endorsed the new consumer advocate proposal and included it in his biennial budget proposal.

“We look forward to the Governor signing this bill into law soon,” Content said. “That signature will be the biggest step forward for utility customer advocacy in Wisconsin since Gov Lee Dreyfus’ signature enacted the bill that created the nation’s first Citizens Utility Board in 1979.”

The legislative change became critical for consumers after the Legislature passed a law three years ago that encourages utilities to negotiate across the table from customer groups to make the rate case proceedings at the Public Service Commission more efficient for all. Unfortunately that settlements law created a new hurdle for CUB that this legislation resolves. The bill approved Tuesday allows CUB to be more nimble, enabling it to better represent small utility customers in future settlement cases, as well as a wider range of PSC actions that affect customers’ bills.

Under the new model, the residential and small commercial and industrial ratepayers of investor-owned utilities would contribute less than 2 cents a month to fund consumer advocacy work by CUB. CUB expects there will be a strong return for ratepayers from the additional investment from ratepayers. CUB projects millions of dollars in incremental ratepayer savings resulting from the work of its new regulatory team.

“CUB appreciates the widespread support received from the business community, the utilities, CUB members, other stakeholders and now the entire Legislature,” said Content. “This is a solution everyone can live with. The unanimous votes in the Assembly and the Senate show that everyone wins when the citizens of Wisconsin have a strong and independent consumer advocate working for them.”

CUB wishes to thank the following supporters of this legislation: Alliant Energy Corp., American Transmission Co., Customers First! Coalition, Dairyland Power Cooperative, Madison Gas and Electric Co., Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin, National Federation of Independent Business, NextEra Energy Resources, Northern States Power/Xcel Energy, Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, Renew Wisconsin, WEC Energy Group Inc. (parent of We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service), Wisconsin Apartment Association, Wisconsin Independent Businesses Inc., Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Utilities Association, Wisconsin Utility Investors Inc. and WPPI Energy.

$387 Million in Emergency Rental Aid Will Help Struggling Wisconsin Utility Customers

In response to the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin and local units of government have $387 million available to help renters with overdue rent payments and utility bills.

Wisconsin’s Department of Administration this week unveiled a new $322 million program that will help renters pay overdue rent and utility bills.

The program implements for Wisconsin a program that Congress passed in December nationwide. Congress made $25 billion available nationwide.

The new program comes as utilities are seeing higher than usual balances of unpaid bills from customers. The Public Service Commission, citing public health and safety concerns, has barred disconnections of residential customers until April 15.

The statewide funding of $322 million will be supplemented by another $65 million that will be made available through local units of government, including the cities of Madison and Milwaukee, as well as Milwaukee, Waukesha, Dane and Brown counties.

Beyond the immediate threat to health and safety, one of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the toll on household budgets for Wisconsin residents hit hard economically by the pandemic. The more we can do to help customers avoid eviction and stay current on utility bills, the lower the tab for all customers down the road.

Wisconsin residents at risk for housing instability, lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and earn a household income at or below 80 percent of the county median income may receive up to 12 months of assistance. Rent and utility bill payments will go directly to the landlord or utility provider.

It’s unclear what the breakdown will be in terms of how much will be allocated for rental assistance and utility bill assistance. To find out more about this program, head to CUB’s COVID-19 Resources page and find out more from the Department of Administration.

Here’s the breakdown for Wisconsin’s share of the $25 billion that was authorized by Congress in December:

       Wisconsin Total Allocation = $386.8 million
       Statewide = $322.2 million
       Brown County = $7.9 million
       Dane County = $8.6 million
       City of Madison = $7.8 million
       Milwaukee County = $10.6 million
       City of Milwaukee = $17.6 million
       Waukesha County $12.1 million

It’s possible that more funds for folks hit hard economically by the pandemic may flow toward the state in the months ahead. The $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill being considered now in Congress could lead to more funding for low income energy assistance programs as well as for unpaid utility bills by both renters and struggling homeowners.

Check out CUB’s COVID-19 Resources page for more information on the PSC disconnection moratorium that was put in place in light of the pandemic, and ways those who are struggling can get help.



Feb. 15, 2021: CUB Applauds Move to Analyze Utility Customers’ Energy Burden

The Citizens Utility Board on Monday welcomed the state Public Service Commission’s move to have utilities measure the energy burden faced by their customers across the state.

Starting this June, utilities will provide energy burden data to the PSC each year. The PSC also announced it is requiring utilities to file data regarding the diversity of both their workforce and supplier base.

The announcement comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on utility customers who are struggling to make ends meet.

“This is a tangible step forward, but it’s really the first step on a long path that Wisconsin utilities and the PSC will need to traverse to help identify who’s struggling the most and to develop policies and pilot programs to assist them,” Content said. 

“For too long the state has looked at affordability of energy at a statewide level, and utilities have only evaluated energy burden across their entire service territories, some of which span wide regions and areas with varying levels of economic inequality,” he added. “It’s good to see the commission push for more granular information.”

“Utilities and regulators can’t manage what they don’t measure, so filling this data gap is essential,” Content said.

As part of its advocacy for those struggling the most across the state, CUB has been publicly urging the filing of energy burden data by the state’s utilities. 

Under rate settlements that CUB negotiated with We Energies of Milwaukee and Wisconsin Public Service of Green Bay in 2019, We Energies and WPS are already analyzing the energy burden for their customers. 

In addition, Madison Gas and Electric will be conducting an energy burden analysis pursuant to a rate settlement that CUB reached with MG&E last year. The PSC approved that settlement in December.

“We know from studies already done that in some neighborhoods of Milwaukee the energy burden is disproportionately high — approaching 20% of income in some census tracts,” said Content. “Having more data about the magnitude of the problem across the state will be critical to help utilities gain insights on areas that need a closer focus.”

The PSC effort to analyze affordability of utility bills comes at a time when the electric rates paid by Wisconsin electric utilities’ residential customers rank second highest in the Midwest and 13th highest in the country, according to averages published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As CUB noted in comments to the PSC last summer, this “presents an incomplete picture of electric utility rate affordability in the state of Wisconsin.

“Even when taking into account statewide averages for different income levels, the actual energy insecurity picture of Wisconsin’s most disadvantaged communities can be lost,” CUB wrote. “Economic conditions vary from one utility service territory to another, and indeed can also vary greatly within a single utility service territory — particularly when a single utility covers a large and diverse swath of the state. Additionally, industry research suggests that electricity consumption, and therefore bills, can differ for low-income customers as compared to the average.”

What’s Ahead for CUB in 2021

Affordability. Fairness. Equity. Safety. These are front and center for CUB as we gear up for another year as the voice for small businesses, homeowners and renters across Wisconsin. 

 Let’s take a quick look at the trends we’re seeing for 2021 affecting the energy and utility landscape. 

 First off, the pandemic. As we all continue safe practices amid concern about new strains of COVID-19, we are working on behalf of those hardest hit by the virusgripped economy. 

 Utility customers need to shelter in place, practice social distancing and stay home. In response to the pandemic and those concerns, the Public Service Commission has barred shutoffs of utility customers until the winter moratorium ends on April 15. 

 We will continue to urge that safety and health be job one. We know that unpaid utility bills are growing and have called on Congress to provide relief to reduce the size of those unpaid bills. The COVID-19 bill passed in December includes funding for utility customers behind on their bills and low-income customers of water utilities. Those are important. More is needed. 

 Next, the bread and butter for CUB – representing residential and small business customers in utility rate cases. 2021 will be no ordinary year. This could be the most active year for rate cases at the PSC in a generation.  

All five of the major investor-owned utilities are expected to file plans in the next several months to raise customers’ rates. That hasn’t happened in roughly 20 years!  

We are committed to keeping rates affordable and making sure the utilities are not padding their requests with unnecessary expenses.  

The transition to a cleaner, low-carbon energy system is front and center for utilities, for the new administration in Washington, and for the Evers administration as well. 

CUB is the small customers’ voice for affordability and equity in the clean energy transition. We are encouraged that solar prices are falling, but replacing current power plants with new plants won’t be cheap!  The utilities will be compensated for the power plants they need, but they should not continue to profit on plants they no longer need.  

More attention needs to be focused on how energy is used in homes and businesses and finding ways to save more of it. All too often, headlines and policy circles are dominated by talk of how utilities are going to supply energy. But more attention needs to be placed on the buildings where energy is used. Taken together, buildings account for 40% of total carbon emissions. And steps to save on energy (and carbon emissions) mean more dollars for businesses to grow and for homeowners and renters to pay for other needs.  

CUB is a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the state Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy’s clean energy plan. CUB will be a voice on this issue in rate cases at the PSC this year as well.  

Finally, we’re continuing our efforts to modernize an outdated funding system for CUB’s work. With a better funding model, CUB will have access to additional resources and know-how to help advocate for you.

Our funding plan was included in a bill that won widespread bipartisan support last year. The only reason it never made it over the finish line was because of the pandemic and the impact it had on the Senate’s work calendar. 

Our proposal, if adopted, would cost ratepayers less than 2 cents a month on their electricity bill, but would go a long way toward ensuring the CUB becomes an even stronger advocate for affordability and fairness in the years to come. In the past six years CUB has helped save more than $500 million on utility bills. With our new funding model, we’ll help save even more. That’s a pretty good return on an investment of pennies per month. 

After a year dominated by the pandemic, politics, and protests, we’re hopeful that 2021 can be a year of progress on multiple fronts. We’ll keep you posted. 

 To hear more about what CUB is up to this year, check out CUB’s YouTube channel on Friday at noon. CUB Utility Analyst Corey Singletary and Executive Director Tom Content will livestream a conversation  about what CUB’s working on and our focus for the year ahead. 

Action by Congress, PSC Could Aid Struggling Utility Customers

Legislation approved Monday by Congress will provide help to utility customers behind on their bills and low-income customers of water and wastewater utilities.

In addition, the state Public Service Commission on Tuesday approved an arrearage forgiveness program for low-income customers of Alliant Energy Corp. who are behind on their utility bills.

“Taken together, these are important steps to provide relief to those suffering from the economic toll the pandemic has spawned,” said Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, Wisconsin’s consumer advocate for residential and small business utility customers.

The pilot program proposed by Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin Power & Light utility would forgive past due balances if low-income customers are able to remain current on their utility bills for 12 straight months.

In comments to the PSC supporting the proposal, CUB noted, “As our nation’s recently refreshed struggle with racial, social, and economic injustice and inequity has reminded us, many chronically low-income individuals struggle due to societal factors entirely beyond their control. Additionally, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many into personally uncharted territories of economic hardship. WP&L’s proposal will provide the utility with an additional valuable tool to assist its customers who are struggling the most.”

Other major Wisconsin utilities have some form of forgiveness program for low-income customers.

Approval of the pilot came a day after Congress passed a $900 billion COVID relief bill that includes $25 billion for rental assistance, which can be used to pay rent and utility bills that have gone unpaid during the pandemic.

CUB is part of the Customers First Coalition, which last week sent a letter to the Wisconsin congressional delegation asking for funding for to aid customers struggling with utility bills.

A separate portion of the bill, which will fund the U.S. government through September, will provide $638 million nationwide for low-income assistance for customers of water and wastewater utilities.

“The pandemic and recession have made it hard for those struggling to pay for food, let alone their rent and utilities,” Content said.  “Targeting help to those who need it makes sense, and the legislation manages to do that, but missed an opportunity for a bigger infusion of assistance for the poor.”

Newsletter Updates 2020 Work, CUB Wishes Wisconsin Restful Holiday Season

CUB’s Fall Newsletter and Holiday Card is arriving in mailboxes across the state, so we’re happy to share it.

We want you to have a happy and restful holiday season. It’s been a cataclysmic year. Our normal routines and lives have been turned upside down, and after all we’ve been through we hope you and your get a chance to exhale and relax.

The newsletter provides updates on what we’ve been working on, while working at our homes, during the pandemic.

The pandemic has been a critical focus for us. We advocated to keep utility customers connected and joined our consumers advocate partners across the country in urging Congress to step up and provide additional relief to those hardest hit by the economic fallout from COVID-19. Check out our COVID-19 resources here.

A new funding model for CUB, our Funding Modernization Plan, was approved unanimously in the state Assembly early this year just prior to the Governor’s Safer at Home order. We await Senate passage of the bill, though it’s unclear whether the Senate will reconvene again before year-end. With the prospect of all five big utilities having rate cases next year, this would be a good time to finalize a plan that has widespread and bipartisan support.

This year we’ve been working on cases involving several of the big utilities, negotiating a settlement to keep electricity rates unchanged and below 2018 levels for customers of  Madison  Gas & Electric Co., and supporting a refinancing plan that will trim costs for We Energies customers linked to the shuttered Pleasant Prairie coal-fired power plant.

The newsletter also highlights another recent win: Two Waukesha County teachers, Danielle Chaussée and Kelly Holtzman of Oconomowoc High School, were named Wisconsin’s Energy Educators of the Year for 2020. The teachers lead a combined Global Sustainability and A.P. Spanish class. On behalf of CUB, the nonprofit partner of their class, the students translated CUB consumer information materials into Spanish and created CUB’s first Spanish-language webpage, cubwi.org/espanol.

Finally, the newsletter highlights CUB’s savings for customers, which tallied $159 million last year, and shows how Wisconsin’s electricity rates stack up among Midwest states. Though rates have stabilized somewhat in recent years, the longer-term trend shows that rate hikes have outpaced inflation. Being among the most expensive in the Midwest underscores there’s more work for CUB to do, with the help of supporters across the state.

Our thanks go out to members who’ve supported the nation’s first CUB through the years. If you want to support Your Independent Consumer Voice, please consider a pledge this week as part of our #GivingTuesday campaign. Pledge your support at cubwi.org. Thank you!