Wisconsin is the latest state to see a national group attempting to influence state-level policies on utility rates and solar energy -- and this one used a campaign that allegedly faked support from locals.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission is reviewing three cases where utility companies have asked for changes to the rate structure. As part of the public comment process on those proposals, a group named the Consumer Energy Alliance submitted a petition claiming support from 2,500 Wisconsin residents "who believe every energy consumer should pay a fair share for maintaining the electrical grid" and who support changes to the current utility rate structures. Consumer Energy Alliance is a Houston-based trade group with connections to Washington, D.C., energy lobbyists.
The petition caught the attention of many in the state who thought it was suspect that 2,500 people would sign a petition in support of policies that would likely raise their energy bills. Many also wondered why the CEA, a Houston-based group, would be so interested in Wisconsin rate policies. Not long after the petition was submitted, however, a reporter at Madison's Cap Times found that at least some of the people who reportedly signed the petition weren't aware of what they were signing and actually opposed the rate changes.
Cap Times reporter Mike Ivey found many of the supposed signers said they had received a phone call but had not actually signed the petition, or that they had been unclear of the position the petition advocated. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission reviewed the submission, and on Thursday announced that it was not accepting the petition because a disk submitted along with it for substantiation "didn't contain the information" promised, Cynthia Smith, the chief legal counsel for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, told The Huffington Post. The commission's administrative law judge "determined there wasn't sufficient information as to the methodology or what people thought they were signing," said Smith. Thus, the petition won't be considered as part of the record in the rate cases.
The petition was filed as part of proceedings on proposed rate changes for Wisconsin utilities. It was supposedly signed by customers of Madison Gas & Electric and WE Energies, which each have separate proposals before the commission. The proposals from MGE and WE would both increase the fixed charges for customers while lowering the amount customers pay per kilowatt hour of energy used. The proposal from WE would also lower the amount of money customers with solar panels could make by selling excess energy they generate back to the grid -- a policy known as net metering.
Wisconsin is one of 43 states and the District of Columbia that has a net metering policy, which has been credited with helping grow the market for rooftop solar. But electric utilities in a number of states have been pushing back on those policies in recent years and attempting to raise the rates on solar customers, who they argue are not paying their fair share for use of the grid. One of the most recent disputes over solar policy took place in Arizona in 2013, when the local utility eventually disclosed that it was funding a campaign from the national conservative group 60 Plus Association against net metering.
The CEA said Thursday that it was withdrawing the petition from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission record anyway. David Holt, the group's president, told The Huffington Post that the CEA didn't intend for the petition to be "specific to merits of any rate case" and instead it was about presenting "sensible, logical, balanced positions" on electricity.
Holt pushed back on claims that the names on the petition were gathered in a misleading or incorrect manner. "As we do with all these cases, we went back and reviewed our entire process and verified the authenticity of all the respondents and the accuracy of our whole process, so we're comfortable with that," he said.
But the CEA's involvement in Wisconsin has drawn attention overall. While the group says it represents consumer interests, its member list is made up of a number of oil and gas companies and manufacturers. And the group has close ties with HBW Resources, a lobbying and consulting firm that says its mission is to "promote government policies on behalf of our clients that encourage the development of energy resources." Holt is a managing partner, but says he spends "99 percent" of his time on the Consumer Energy Alliance; all the staffers listed on its site also work for HBW Resources. Holt said the Consumer Energy Alliance, which is registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, is run by a board of directors and the board "signs a contract with HBW Resources to help manage CEA."
Both WE Energies and MGE have said they had no involvement with the CEA or the petition. "We're not involved with CEA and we had nothing to do with the circulation of the petition," said WE spokesman Brian Manthey. MGE spokesman Steve Schultz said: "We oppose any group or activity that would mislead, misinform or interfere with the right of due process entitled to all MGE customers. Our commitment is to them."
The CEA petition raised hackles among people in Wisconsin who oppose the proposed changes. "Public input is supposed to be a really important piece of consideration in rate cases," said state Rep. Chris Taylor (D) in an interview with The Huffington Post. "I'm concerned that we've had some fraud by this out-of-state group, alleging that there are 2,500 people that want to double their utility base rates."
Taylor is also concerned about what the proposed changes would mean for solar. "It's really an attack on consumer production of energy," said Taylor, adding that it will determine the future of energy policy in the state. "Is Wisconsin going to be a state that welcomes renewable energy, or are we going to tax renewables out of existence?"
Tyler Huebner, executive director of the pro-renewables group RENEW Wisconsin, which also opposes the changes, thinks the changes would paralyze the growth of solar. RENEW's analysis has found that solar has only a 0.02 percent penetration in WE Energies territories currently, and a 0.07 percent penetration in areas MGE serves. Going forward with the changes, "It would be very select few locations that would be interested in solar," says Huebner. "It would really, really dampen the market, and would probably remove it for residential."
Some of the groups that had asked the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to review the CEA petition want more scrutiny turned on the CEA. "If the only consequence from this is that the petition is thrown out, it's certainly not a deterrent to CEA in how it handles public comments in other states and other proceedings," said Robert Kelter, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center based in Madison. "There's got to be some consequence to taking an oath that you're telling the truth in a public service commission hearing and then getting caught [in a situation where] what you were saying was not true."
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission's decisions on the rate cases are expected by the end of the year.