CUB’s work on rate case settlements, our 40th Anniversary celebration, resources for customers impacted by COVID-19, and efforts to secure a more stable funding model are highlighted in our 2019 Annual Report , just published on cubwi.org.
CUB secured $159 million in savings in three utility rate cases last year for customers. That brings the total savings since 2006 to $3.5 billion.
The Annual Report also focuses on the challenges that Wisconsinites are facing this year with COVID-19 and the economy.
The back page of the report highlights key contact numbers for Wisconsin utilities and resources for customers hard-hit by the recession this year.
As I mentioned in my note to members:
We need to be vocal, to all who will listen, that this is the time to ease the path toward economic recovery for low-income residents and struggling small businesses trying to make ends meet.
We need to be vigilant in making sure that monopoly utilities and utility regulators recognize the tough spot that utility customers are in this year — and may be in for a while.
The Annual Report also highlights CUB’s 40th Anniversary events celebrating the formation of the nation’s first Citizens Utility Board in 1979.
In addition, the report focuses on our work toward a Funding Modernization Plan that would give CUB additional resources to advocate for customers as it negotiates rate settlements with utilities in the years ahead. This plan is included in the PSC Omnibus Bill, AB 712, which is pending in the state Senate after passing unanimously in two legislative committees and in the state Assembly.
CUB needs more in-house experts on staff to advocate effectively for customers in an era of negotiation, rather than litigation, in rate cases. This new funding model, described in the Annual Report, costs less than two cents a month for a typical residential or small business customer of an electric utility.
CUB’s Annual Report also profiles nominees for the CUB Board of Directors and discusses our outreach and work with small businesses. As COVID-19 has canceled in-person outreach events for the time being, CUB is interested in hearing from businesses and community groups who are looking for guest speakers for virtual (Zoom) meetings. Reach out to Tom Content at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disconnections of utility customers in Wisconsin won’t start this weekend after the Public Service Commission voted to delay shutoffs until Sept. 1, citing worsening COVID-19 statistics in Wisconsin.
The PSC voted 2-1 Thursday to require utilities to hold off on disconnecting residential customers who are behind on their bills, citing changed circumstances since the Commission’s last meeting on this more than a month ago.
The Commission is clearly trying to strike a balance here, and clearly there will be costs that come due at some point, but record case numbers in Wisconsin compelled the Commission to act for public health and safety reasons, said Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board.
“The commissioners made the right call, given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic. “They clearly didn’t want to take a risk of allowing shutoffs to commence — which could lead to lives lost due to utility disconnections,” Content said.
CUB last week urged utilities to be flexible with customers who are behind on their bills and asked utilities to hold off on disconnecting any customers until October.
The Commission at its weekly meeting Thursday received information from PSC staff indicating that 71,000 households were at risk of shutoff. The Commission agreed to revisit the issue at a meeting planned for Aug. 20.
“Clearly there a lot of folks who are hurting, and this is the time to be connecting them with available resources,” Content said.
Wisconsin has $8 million of energy assistance for low income customers available through the federal Cares Act. The state along with Dane and Milwaukee counties have $45 million in rental assistance funding designed to stave off evictions.
Congress is expected to vote in the coming weeks on a pandemic response bill, and utilities and consumer advocates alike have called for billions more nationwide for energy assistance. A version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives included expanded funding for energy assistance, rental assistance and also created a fund to support water utility customers hard hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic.
The Citizens Utility Board, Wisconsin’s utility consumer advocate, is calling for utilities to be flexible with customers, waive penalties for nonpayment and delay disconnecting customers who are behind on their bills until the fall.
Wisconsin citizens were spared disconnection of their utility services because of the executive orders issued by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and decisions by the Public Service Commission.
Those orders were vacated by the state Supreme Court, and the PSC recently decided to allow disconnections to proceed. As of July 15, utilities can now send disconnection notices to customers and may begin disconnecting customers on July 25.
“What’s most important at this time is flexibility and an appreciation that the economic conditions in Wisconsin have changed drastically as a result of the pandemic,” said Tom Content, CUB Executive Director. “Moreover, the recent uptick in the incidence of the COVID-19 pandemic means this is the wrong time to be shutting off folks’ power and water.”
In light of a recent surge in cases both in Wisconsin and in many states across the country, CUB is urging utilities to delay disconnections of customers hard hit by the pandemic until the fall. Wisconsin experienced a record 964 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, and four out of five counties in the state are experiencing “high” coronavirus activity, according to the state Department of Health Services.
A key challenge is that the disconnection notices issued by utilities are what prompt people to apply for energy assistance and crisis assistance funding made available through the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program. WHEAP has $8 million in supplemental energy assistance funding through the federal CARES Act.
CUB is urging utilities to consider the economic and health circumstances of customers who may be at risk of shutoff and asks that utilities:
Waive late payment penalties and reduce down payments for customers who are looking to set up payment plans.
If the utility decides to pursue disconnections for nonpayment, increase financial thresholds that decide which customers get shut off, in light of the unique circumstances facing Wisconsin citizens with high unemployment and the looming expiration of supplemental unemployment benefits.
Delay shutting off customers, for now, and do so only after the hot summer months have passed, beginning Oct. 1, at which point the need for continued relief could be re-evaluated.
“We really want folks to be aware that there is aid available to help utility customers who are having a tough time,” said Content. “Folks in need should take advantage of energy assistance and rental assistance funding that’s now accessible across the state.”
Wisconsin has launched a $25 million rental assistance program, and local rental assistance programs have been announced in Dane and Milwaukee counties, and are being implemented in Racine, Waukesha and other communities across the state. Find out more about these programs at cubwi.org/covid19.
CUB has been actively looking for opportunities to address the impact of the pandemic and the economic fallout that’s resulted. That’s why CUB supported a move by the PSC to limit the amount of interest that utilities can collect on costs linked to the pandemic that may be added to customers’ bills in future years.
“We’d also really like to see more energy assistance funding in Wisconsin, something that’s under consideration now by Congress as it considers a new round of legislation to respond to the pandemic,” Content said. “One version of the legislation pending would, for the first time, make emergency aid available to water utility customers.”
CUB is a member of two groups, the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates in Washington, D.C., and the Customers First Coalition based in Madison, that have joined utilities in asking Congress to allocate more than $4 billion in increased funding for energy assistance.
The more funds that go to energy assistance, the lower the ultimate cost on customers’ bills later, Content said.
We’re almost halfway through a strange and tumultuous year, and that makes now a good time to update you on a number of our cases at the Public Service Commission. Here’s a look at some of the cases we’re tracking:
Coal plant retirement costs: CUB will be filing comments this summer on the Strategic Energy Assessment, a report that comes out every other year that serves as a snapshot for where Wisconsin stands on a number of issues, from energy supply and demand to rates and affordability. New wrinkles this year include special attention given to decarbonization of Wisconsin’s electric sector.
As utilities look to shut down coal plants to cut carbon emissions, CUB is emphasizing the “elephant in the room” when it comes the clean energy transition. What we mean by that is addressing extra costs customers are saddled with when utilities continue to earn full profit from old plants no longer needed to keep the lights on.
After all, when we move from one house to another we stop paying the mortgage on the first one. However, the utilities still want customers to keep paying for their old house they’re moving from. We tackled this issue last year in the We Energies rate case, and reached a settlement to reduce ratepayers costs tied to the Pleasant Prairie coal plant. The Milwaukee utility pledged to file an application to refinance the Pleasant Prairie pollution control expenditures to a lower rate. We want that filed soon. Meanwhile, Alliant Energy just announced that its Edgewater coal plant in Sheboygan will shut down by 2023. That’s another case where you can expect CUB to weigh on this issue to help reduce costs for customers.
Alliant last month opened its new natural gas-fired power plant in Beloit, so it has enough energy to meet customer demand today. But Alliant has also announced plans to shutter the Edgewater coal plant in Sheboygan.
Rate case updates: Alliant Energy and Madison Gas & Electric this year were expected to file rate cases covering the years 2021 and 2022, but things are shaping up differently.
Citing the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Alliant is opting not to file to increase rates at this time. Instead, the utility has proposed a one-year extension of the rate freeze that CUB and others negotiated with the utility two years ago. CUB is evaluating the proposal. The freeze would be for 2021 only, and Alliant is expected to come back for another rate case next year.
MG&E has informed the PSC that it intends to negotiate a settlement with CUB and other groups instead of a full rate case application for 2021-22. We will keep you updated on this case. Nuclear costs rising precipitously: You may recall that CUB negotiated a rate settlement last year with We Energies that helped limit the size of the rate hike that hit customers’ bills in January. One of the reasons bills did rise was an unsustainable escalation built into the Point Beach power purchase agreement (PPA). We Energies in 2007 sold the nuclear plant on Lake Michigan to NextEra Energy Resources and buys back the power from the plant.
Point Beach increases each year through the early 2030s are a significant cost driver for We Energies rates, and We Energies pledged last year to work with CUB, the PSC staff and Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group on alternatives to the rising tab facing Point Beach customers.
We all face challenges from the COVID-19 crisis. Here at CUB we think worrying about your utility service should not be one of them. And, thanks to quick work and cooperation from Governor Tony Evers and our utilities, Wisconsin customers don’t fear being shut off or incurring penalties or big charges to re-connect their service.
At CUB, the work our staff has performed for the last 40 years goes on.
We’re operating a bit differently now, all working remotely from our homes, but we’re still at work to protect the interests of Wisconsin’s residential and small business customers. And we’ve worked to provide resources specific to COVID19 on a new page on our website. Check it out at www.cubwi.org/covid19.
Gov. Evers has issued two executive orders essentially barring utility disconnections for residential and business customers and directing utilities to reconnect customers who are shut off. These actions apply to electric, natural gas and water utilities across the state. The second order enables waivers of late fees and allows for reconnections without paying the utility a deposit.
These are all important steps to help keep a roof over Wisconsinites’ heads and enable them to focus on their livelihoods and taking the proper social distancing steps so Wisconsin can “flatten the curve” under Evers’ #SaferAtHome designation.
CUB is pleased that all the state’s major utilities – We Energies, Wisconsin Public Service, Xcel Energy (Northern States Power), Alliant Energy (Wisconsin Power & Light) and Madison Gas & Electric – have joined utilities across the country in making commitments not to shut off customers during this critical time.
The PSC has opened two cases related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and CUB is involved in both. One involves accounting issues linked to costs utilities are spending during the crisis. The other deals with a variety of related issues.
The challenges with the COVID-19 novel coronavirus are complex, dangerous and thorny.
Some key points:
Stay safe. Follow the recommendations outlined by the Department of Health Services to protect yourself and your family from COVID-19.
Call your utility to arrange a payment plan if you need one. Consider budget billing, which evens out the wide swings in energy costs over a year’s time.
Try to save energy where you can. It’s expected that residential energy usage will go up now that all non-essential businesses are shuttered temporarily and folks work from home. Consider steps to save on your energy bill. Check out CUB’s Simple Steps to Save Energy as well as this COVID-19-related message from the state Focus on Energy program.
Beware of scams. Scam activity by imposters trying to mask themselves as utility employees may increase during the crisis. But it’s important to be vigilant. Check out CUB’s Stopping Scams Guide here.
CUB is continuing to monitor this crisis and the actions of utilities across the state and the nation.
Through the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, CUB is also monitoring how utility regulators and advocates across the country are responding. It’s gratifying that utilities are taking steps to re-connect customers who are shut off, given the severity of the public health emergency.
Our work on this issue will extend far beyond this year, and CUB will be there, vigilant for those who can least afford to withstand the economic emergency that has hit along with the pandemic.
On behalf of the CUB Board of Directors and Corey and Rich on the CUB team, I hope you are staying safe, managing your way through the crisis and reaching out to those in need.
We’ve got some important updates to share in our fall newsletter and holiday card, which has just been published. Check it out here.
You’ll find updates on our 40th Anniversary Celebration in Madison, as we celebrated nearly 40 years to the day from when Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus signed into law the bill creating the nation’s first Citizens Utility Board.
And you’ll find an overview of some big wins – and a big miss by the PSC – in the rate cases involving We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service Corp.
Among the wins: cutting back on the tab customers will have to bear for the power plant We Energies shut down in Pleasant Prairie last year.
The big miss: The PSC whiffed in its decision to allow Wisconsin Public Service to bill customers for all of the cost overruns it incurred on a pollution control project near Wausau.
And we’ve got a special article that shows how CUB has worked via rate settlements to hold the line on rising fixed customer charges.
Our concerns about high fixed charges are many: They discourage energy efficiency, penalize customers who live in small dwellings and low-income folks who don’t use much energy. And they shift the risk from utilities that already have profits above the national average onto the shoulders of utility customers.
The good news is that after a series of big jumps four years ago and even two years ago, CUB has held the line on further increases in fixed fees.
Be sure to check out our fall newsletter and holiday card here.
Nearly 70 people attended as CUB celebrated 40 years of work for the people of Wisconsin and its founding by the Wisconsin Legislature in the fall of 1979.
The bill creating a nonpartisan consumer advocate for customers of Wisconsin’s utilities was signed into law 40 years ago this week by Republican Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus.
CUB recently feted the occasion with appetizers, cake and apple cider. In remarks to those gathered, PSC Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq praised the
organization for its work but noted that Wisconsin has more to do. Other Midwestern states fund the role of the consumer advocate for residential customers at a much higher level than CUB, she noted.
Valcq presented a commendation from Gov. Tony Evers saluting CUB on its 40 years of advocacy.
Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, chair of the Assembly Energy and Utilities Committee, said that CUB’s focus on the price consumers and small businesses pay is crucial, because the energy costs are among the factors that business owners cite when they decide where to locate their firms. Kuglitsch agreed that a more sustainable and stable funding source was a priority for him.
Jim Wahner, the retired Assembly Majority Leader, wore a CUB button from 1979 and recounted tales of meeting with members of “Nader’s Raiders” as one of the first people to listen to Ralph Nader’s vision for a residential utility consumer advocacy group, or RUCAG, in every state in the country. Wahner said he liked everything about the concept except that acronym, and a team from Wisconsin eventually came up with “CUB.”
Eileen Hannigan, CUB Board President, said that Wisconsinites should be proud of how Wisconsin has been on the cutting edge, as the first state to regulate utilities, the first state to ratify women’s right to vote and of course the first state to create a CUB.
Tom Content, CUB Executive Director, said the evening was all about thanking everyone responsible for helping give CUB the staying power to survive financial challenges and make it to its 40th birthday. Over that time, that’s tens and tens of thousands of folks, from lawmakers and canvassers to board members and employees to donors and volunteers.
Content’s goal for CUB is to have it not just fight to survive, but for it to be able to thrive, in the years ahead. Wisconsin has finally answered the question about whether CUB can continue to exist.
Content’s vision for the next 10 years is a more effective CUB with more resources that is able to operate more effectively in a world in which CUB is now across the table negotiating with utilities rather than fighting via litigation in PSC cases.
CUB would like to thank its sponsors for the event, especially Host Sponsor American Family Insurance and Program Sponsor SlipStream. CUB would also like to thank our networking sponsors Arch Electric, Evolution Marketing, Eileen Hannigan and Family and Milwaukee Comedy. We have been fortunate to also have support from our small business members – Bounce Milwaukee, HGA, Healium Hot Yoga, Lakefront Brewery, Outpost Natural Foods and Reynolds Transfer and Storage. In 2019 we were fortunate to be able to help promote and educate about energy savings to our members thanks to support from outreach and education sponsor Focus on Energy.
Here is a copy of the Proclamation signed by Gov. Tony Evers, presented to CUB:
WHEREAS; the Citizens Utility board of Wisconsin is the oldest Citizens Utility Board in the country, having been created by the Legislature in 1979 and opened in 1980; AND
WHEREAS; the mission of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin is to advocate for fair, safe, and reliable, electric gas and water utility services on behalf of small-scale consumers across our state, from individuals to small businesses; AND
WHEREAS; throughout its 40 years of existence, the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin has provided public interest legal services to ensure representation and fair prices for individuals, families, and communities; AND
WHEREAS; the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin operates with the guiding principle that small-scale consumers should have access to the same advocacy resources and legal expertise that powerful energy monopolies and big businesses are afforded;
NOW THEREFORE, I, Tony Evers, Governor of Wisconsin, congratulate the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin upon their 40th Anniversary of dedicated service to utility customers throughout our state.
The Public Service Commission on Thursday missed a great opportunity to secure savings for utility customers in northeastern and north central Wisconsin.
The rate decision by the PSC will require utility customers to pay for cost overruns plus profit totaling $89 million on a pollution control project that went 24% over budget. The project at the Weston 3 coal plant near Wausau was built by Wisconsin Public Service of Green Bay, and its customers will now foot the bill for these overruns.
“It’s deeply distressing that the Commission didn’t exercise its regulatory oversight of the utility in this case,” said Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin. “The utility failed to promptly notify the commission when the costs soared, and that came after the Commission asked the utility to do just that.”
The pollution control technology, known as ReACT, had never been deployed in the United States. At the time it was proposed, CUB and others were concerned that there were risks assocated with using novel technology such as this.
Not only was the utility slow in reporting the overrun but it also failed to specify in detail how the project went so far over budget. A pattern of poor management of the project was also clear, based on reviews of company emails and documents provided in this case.
“Given reporting delays and other problems, this is a case that warranted strong oversight,” Content said.
It was just five years ago that the Commission did find fault for this utility on this very project, when it disallowed $2 million linked to higher costs to get the power plant running with the new emissions control system.At that time, the PSC expressed frustration for not being informed in a timely fashion about the problems that could have saddled customers with higher costs.
Today’s decision came on a 2-to-1 vote. While all three commissioners decided that the utility’s overruns were prudent expenditures, Commission Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq said the utility shouldn’t realize its full profit on the project in light of its delays in informing the commission about project cost escalation.
“We certainly hope that utilities are careful in managing costs for multi-million-dollar projects going forward, and we also call on the commission to exercise its oversight powers to compel the utilities to keep costs from spiraling out of control,” Content said.
The decision came as the PSC wrapped up its analysis of a rate hike proposed by Wisconsin Public Service. CUB, the utility and other groups reached a partial settlement, approved two weeks ago, that resolved most of the issues in the case.
“We’re still pleased that the rate increase facing WPS customers will be smaller than the utility proposed,” said Content. “But because of the overrun issues, the PSC failed to make a bigger dent in the size of the rate hike.”
We combined a retrospective about our 40 years of advocacy as the nation’s first Citizens Utility Board with our report on significant cases and work in 2018.
CUB held its Milwaukee 40th Anniversary event on April 20, with 120 supporters in attendance filling Lakefront Brewery (a CUB small business member). Mayor Tom Barrett issued a proclamation and former Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader Jim Wahner shared stories of his efforts to help create CUB in the 1970s.
While we are pleased to celebrate 40 years as Your Independent Consumer Voice, the work goes on. CUB was able to help save ratepayers $84 million in 2018 through refunds on tax savings, reaching settlements with Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin Power & Light utility and Madison Gas & Electric on their rate cases. We also participated in municipal electric rate cases on behalf of small business and residential customers in Menasha, Shawano and Kaukauna.
Where will CUB be at 50? We don’t have all the answers, of course, but we know this is a time of profound change. Be sure to read about the dramatic shifts predicted in the electric industry as costs fall for renewable energy and energy storage. Customers will have technological advances in energy efficiency, big data, and increased analytics at their fingertips to control energy costs. Through it all, CUB will be there as the voice of the people, keeping the process fair and stopping the utilities from earning excessive profits.