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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.

March 23: 2021: 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!

Savings Extended for Another Year for MG&E Customers

Customers of Madison Gas & Electric Co. will continue paying less next year for electricity than they were paying in 2018 under a rate settlement approved Tuesday.

The state Public Service Commission voted unanimously to endorse a rate settlement that will keep electricity rates at the same level in 2021 as it has been for the past two years.

The settlement incorporates savings on fuel costs and taxes to help offset the additional cost customers would otherwise be paying with MG&E’s utility-scale solar expansion.

“Keeping rates stable was one element of this settlement that we like,” said Tom Content, CUB executive director. “But it also served as an opportunity to push out innovative new offerings, like a Bring Your Own Device pilot program that helps customers save money by adjusting their smart thermostat on hot summer days.”

CUB appreciated that the settlement includes a commitment to analyze in detail the energy burden borne by low-income customers of MG&E. This analysis could serve as a jumping-off point for innovative rate options for customers hard hit by this year’s recession.

“We all need to keep focused on the needs of those who are struggling the most, and we hope this can be a step toward doing just that,” said Content.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a critical factor driving negotiations this year. COVID-19 has affected all areas of the economy, including both utilities and their customers. Finding a way to keep electricity costs from going up in a pandemic was a goal for CUB and MG&E in this settlement.

This marks the second straight settlement CUB has negotiated with MG&E under the settlements law passed by the Legislature in 2018. Other stakeholders agreeing to the settlement included Renew Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group.

More details on the settlement can be found here: www.cubwi.org/blog. Information about the case is available at the PSC under docket 3270-UR-123.

Waukesha Co. Teachers Who Partnered with CUB Honored as Wisconsin Energy Educators of the Year

Two Waukesha County teachers whose class partnered with CUB during its 40th Anniversary year have been awarded the 2020 Energy Educator of the Year award from the Wisconsin K-12 Energy Education Program (KEEP).

CUB was thrilled to partner with teachers Danielle Chaussee and Kelly Holtzman and their Global Sustainability / Spanish class in the 2019-20 school year.

The OHS class worked with CUB in a number of ways, translating energy education materials into Spanish and helping launch CUB’s Spanish language page, cubwi.org/espanol.

The OHS students also served as ambassadors for CUB at the CUB 40th Anniversary Celebration in Madison in November 2019, and helped staff booths for CUB and marketing partner Evolution Marketing at the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council conference in December.

“The teachers strive to create learning experiences that immerse students in real-world issues and teach students ethical issues behind energy and conservation,” said Melissa Anders, Oconomowoc High School associate principal.

“They not only teach about energy in the scientific sense; they radiate an internal energy that comes from a selfless passion to serve others,” said Anders. “The Global Sustainability course is the first of its kind that I know of, and it is an innovative way of combining cultural responsiveness, service learning, science, business, and world language instruction.”

The Energy Educator of the Year Award was awarded Nov.  6 by KEEP during a special virtual ceremony with the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education, held via Zoom. The energy education program, based at UW-Stevens Point, is supported by Alliant Energy, Madison Gas & Electric, We Energies, Wisconsin Public Service Corp., WPPI Energy and Xcel Energy.

CUB is proud of our partnership with OHS along with small business member Evolution Marketing. The partnership is continuing, virtually, with a new group of OHS students in the 2020-21 school year.

 

 

 

 

 

Consumer Groups Applaud PSC Vote to Refinance $100 Million from Retired Power Plant

  • $40 million in savings projected from securitization for Pleasant Prairie Plant
  • PSC vote advances key element of 2019 rate case settlement with consumer groups, We Energies

The Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, Inc. (WIEG) applauded the Public Service Commission for this morning’s vote to approve an application from We Energies to securitize $100 million of costs for environmental controls at the retired Pleasant Prairie Power Plant.

On a 3-0 vote, the PSC granted the request of We Energies for a financing order to authorize environmental trust financing (Docket 6630-ET-101). We Energies estimates the issuance of environmental trust bonds to securitize $100 million of the remaining investment in environmental controls at Pleasant Prairie will deliver $40 million in customer savings over time.

Securitization is in some ways similar to refinancing a mortgage. It’s a process by which a utility replaces relatively high-cost debt and equity, which is charged to electricity customers, with lower-cost debt in the form of securitization bonds. This gives the utility a more favorable bond issue and saves ratepayers money.

Securitization of undepreciated costs of Pleasant Prairie was a key part of 2019 rate case settlement involving We Energies and consumer groups. That settlement in PSC Docket 5-UR-109 was negotiated by CUB and WIEG with We Energies. Clean Wisconsin signed on to that settlement, which was approved by the PSC late last year.

WIEG and CUB supported this provision as a strong tool to help keep rising electric rates in check, especially at a time when more utilities are looking to retire coal-fired power plants in the next several years. All of Wisconsin’s investor-owned utilities have committed to carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets, coal retirements and significant new investment in capital projects.

“As Wisconsin utilities look to spend billions over the next decade swapping fossil fuel power plants for cleaner technology, we strongly support securitization and other innovative financing tools as a way to soften the impact to customers that comes from retiring these facilities years or even decades earlier than intended,” said Tom Content, CUB’s Executive Director.

Current state law (Ch. 196.027) allows the creation of a trust from which low-cost bonds can be issued for the financing of emission reducing technologies and retired assets. The law was originally passed as 2003 Act 152.

“We think this makes good common sense and excellent economic sense,” said Todd Stuart, WIEG Executive Director.  “It could save Wisconsin ratepayers $40 million in this instance. Now that we have this example for Pleasant Prairie, securitization or other creative financing should be considered by Wisconsin utilities in the future. Avoiding rate increases helps our economy and we strongly believe it will help keep our struggling manufacturing industry competitive.”

The customer groups said they appreciated the effort of We Energies to negotiate and implement both the rate settlement and securitization plan, and the work of the PSC and its staff to review and authorize the plan today.

We Energies shut down the Pleasant Prairie coal-fired power plant in 2018, and customer groups raised concerns about utility customers having to continue paying for a power plant no longer needed to keep the lights on in Wisconsin.