Disorderly Conduct of the Badger-Coulee Review

In an orderly state of affairs, the WI PSC would adhere to the goals of Energy Priority Law and require large utility proposals to fairly compete with comparable investments in energy efficiency and distributed renewables from the outset. This is what states who continually plan user-side benefits like efficiency and home solar do.

With use dropping since 2007, small differences in wholesale pricing and utility planning that does not pursue net carbon emission reductions, investments in energy efficiency are extremely competitive. A very high percentage of efficiency dollars goes directly to electric customers– not to financing fees on 40 year mortgages with 12% guaranteed return to utility investors. The return on energy efficiency investment is minimally 30% higher and more often 200-300% higher than the razor thin “potential” energy savings claimed for transmission investment. In terms of carbon emission reduction, three studies have concluded that Energy Efficiency was responsible for 75% of the green house gas emission reductions achieved in the U.S. in 2012.

One year into the Badger-Coulee “Public Information” phase in 201i, alert town, village and county governments began adopting resolutions requesting the utilities and the PSC to immediately conduct a cost benefit study of all energy options including efficiency. Interest increased as it became clear that the proposed 150 mile long, high capacity transmission line connecting La Crosse and Madison was only one of seven such lines announced for the state. The resolutions asked the PSC to let free market competition work and give WI ratepayers with clear, factual information about their energy options early in the process rather than having to hire lawyers and experts to get factual information in the technical hearings the end of the process. What benefits would Wisconsin customers get if the same or fewer billions for 8 transmission lines was invested into energy efficiency instead?

Three years have passed and the utilities and the PSC have yet to provide the energy product choice information. How is this possible when special, bi-partisan legislative meetings were held, resolutions came from every corner of the state and 12 state legislators formally supported the municipalities’ requests?

In short, WI’s utility review process was gutted in 1998. No longer is our Commission required to conduct competitive energy planning to serve electric customers. Current law allows privately-owned utilities to conduct detailed, multi-year investigations of “potential” transmission siting before the public is provided factual information about need and transmission alternatives. In recent years, the agency has made access extremely challenging placing the burden of exploring non transmission alternatives entirely upon the public– individuals and organizations who have the time and wits to find and hire lawyers and highly skilled engineers who are willing to place their personal credentials on table for little pay to counter millions of dollars of utility efforts.

In the draft impact statement that came out last week, one can find only dismissal of the alternatives that ratepayers have asked to be studied. Of the 466 pages, 8 address need. Two pages provide boiler plate description and six pages recount utility claims without discerning oversight. Providing no account of the efficiency priorities and study requests in the municipal resolutions, the PSC echoes this hollow utility claim, “Energy efficiency and load reduction would not serve as an adequate substitute for the proposed Badger-Coulee project because it would not provide energy cost savings for Wisconsin customers regardless of the level of additional load reduction achieved.” In other words, tell grandpa he meant to say, “Waste more, want not.” Profound savings from efficiency are nearly limitless as our homes and businesses still waste 40-50% of the energy we buy. Unlike the “cheaper” energy we never got after building a robust transmission system over the last 7 years, energy efficiency actually lowers utility bills, slashes emissions and creates local jobs galore. There is a very different energy path for our energy dollars that more and more electric customers are becoming aware of.

At this very moment, farmers, business owners and households across WI are fighting for very limited Focus on Energy rebates to install more efficient equipment and solar panels. They have done the math. They know that efficiency with a modest investment in solar can save an average house more than $40,000 over 40 years while attaining a zero carbon footprint. From all indications, trusting that “increasing access to wind energy” has guarantee to shut down billions of protected fossil fuel assets in the energy pool insures one’s footprint will grow. Its time to stop building assets for utilities and build them ourselves and neighbors.

The municipal resolutions were effective at encouraging PSC staff to ask the utilities more questions about need, so many hoped the PSC would adequately fund experts for the technical hearings so we could finally have non transmission alternatives to consider. But the agency again put the horse before the cart funding $75,000 for the public side to probe need and develop alternatives and $125,000 to an environmental organization to effectively promote the utilities’ high voltage transmission option by defining routes with fewer negative impacts. I’d feel more confident about their input if the group had developed contacts with landowners over the last 4 years.

With funding for only 1/3 of the engineering hours needed, SOUL of Wisconsin is raising $66,000 to to pay engineers to do what the state had the discretion to do three years ago. Hopefully, SOUL can raise the money.

With grandmothers cashing in CD’s to buy solar panels in order to save money, its easy to understand why utilities do not want preferences for efficiency and solar piling up in the final impact statement. There are many glaring omissions in the draft. So far, the only mention of the resolutions is a list of municipalities on page 45 with no mention of what the resolutions asked for. The legislators’ support letters are not even mentioned.

All ratepayers can and should express our dissatisfaction with the PSC’s lack of responsiveness and the overall disorder of our states utility review process. Given the agency’s reluctance to make ratepayers’ wishes known, sending copies of one’s PSC submission to local newspapers and state legislators seems very appropriate.

Anyone who pays electric bills within the MISO and PJM regions will be affected by Badger-Coulee as the costs and policy impacts are widely distributed. One can find the email addresses of staff handling the impact statement on the bottom of this PAGE.)

Rob Danielson
La Farge, WI