MILWAUKEE - After an 11% increase in electric and gas bills at the start of this year, We Energies has yet again requested an increase in rates that customers pay for gas and electricity.
This additional 3.1% rate increase to electricity and over 3% increase to gas was met with widespread opposition, with more than 250 additional public comments added to the docket (#5-UR-110) and more than 3 hours of public testimony at the two public hearing sessions.
“As a senior on a fixed income, I know just how hard it can be to make ends meet. Energy costs to stay cool in summer and warm in winter can be a back breaker for citizens,” said Sierra Club Supporter Carl Hujet in a public comment.
Wisconsin Chapter Co-chair Don Ferber stated “This is all too typical that our investor owned utilities put management salaries and shareholder profits ahead of the well-being of the people they are supposed to be serving. How can the utilities and the PSC justify these profits when it comes at the expense of harming people who are already disadvantaged and living on the edge?”
WE Energies is pursuing this increase despite massive pushback to last year’s rate increase, with many people complaining how unfair it was that businesses received much lower rate increases. In 2022, 1180 people submitted public comments on the rate case - but only 12 supported We Energies’ rate increase. Across the state, hundreds of people have spoken out against higher energy burdens, from submitting comments and testifying against the rate increase, to rallying outside of We Energies headquarters to call on the monopoly utility to address the concerns of local residents.
“Last year the community made it abundantly clear that we cannot afford these massive bill increases, and We Energies came back asking for another one. This is unfair, especially to our Black and Brown communities who have high energy burdens,” said Citizen Action Wisconsin Energy Burden Organizer Keviea Guiden. “We should not have to choose between keeping the lights on, feeding our families, paying rent and medical bills. We cannot continue to live like this. Something has to change – including the way that the Public Service Commission regulates utilities. These rates cannot keep going up.”
If approved, all We Energies customers will have to pay these new increases, with Black, Hispanic, and Latinx neighborhoods disproportionately hurt by these costs. And while this docket moves forward quickly, the investigative docket about a Percentage of Income Payment Program (PIPP) for We Energies customers, which would help those struggling with electric costs, should also move quickly. Payment options for those struggling with bills are urgently needed.
Walnut Way Director of Environmental Justice Bryan Rogers said, “Lindsay Heights neighborhood residents, as well as all other We Energies customers, need a solution for unaffordable energy bills. Rates need to stop increasing and the PIPP needs to be implemented as soon as possible. We Energies customers are real people facing real impacts. We need a system-wide solution to energy burden and to racial disparities. In order to address these challenges, it's important for our policymakers to implement programs that provide energy assistance, support energy-efficient housing, promote clean energy adoption and reduce the environmental disparities faced by low-income communities in Milwaukee and other regions.”
We Energies claimed the request for the increase was because it has been building more clean energy, but the company is still running expensive coal plants and investing in new fossil gas infrastructure. Earlier this month, the utility received a D grade in Sierra Clubs’ Dirty Truth report.
In a recent Chicago Defender column, Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous wrote, “Imagine telling your boss that you’ll complete less than half of the work that’s needed, getting almost nothing done over 12 months, then asking for a raise. That’s essentially the story of the 77 utility companies still most heavily invested in fossil fuel-fired electric plants, according to a report last week by the Sierra Club and Bloomberg Philanthropies. For example, We Energies announced in 2020 that it would retire the mainly coal-fired Oak Creek power plant in Milwaukee. Two years later, it extended the timeline by 18 months. In August, on a call with investors, corporate officials wouldn’t commit to that schedule. Nonetheless, the company is asking the state public service for a 3 percent rate increase, which would follow an 11 percent rate increase last year.”
In addition to contributing to global climate change, WE Energies’ dirty fossil fuel plants harm Wisconsinites closer to home. The Department of Natural Resources has recently proposed a modified wastewater permit for the Oak Creek and Elm Road coal plants purportedly to bring the plants into compliance with federal coal ash rule that nevertheless allows WE Energies to discharge almost three times the amount of mercury normally permitted under state law to be released into Lake Michigan, which the state already recognizes as “impaired” due to high levels of mercury.
Sierra Club Great Waters Group Conservation Chair and primary care physician Victoria Gillet says "Last year my testimony referenced two of my patients whose serious health problems were worsened by high energy burden. When I looked back on that testimony before this public hearing I was devastated to realize that one of those patients I advocated for died this year, in their home, of preventable medical issues. The people of Wisconsin are literally dying while we wait for the affordability programs and renewable energy that We Energies and the PSC promised us. I am so tired of choices that benefit a small number of shareholders and harm everyone else that We Energies ‘serves.’"
The public comment from Sierra Club Supporter Nikki Kafkas summarizes the solution quite simply: “Energy should be affordable, and we should be turning to renewable sources.”
About the Sierra Club
The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 3.5 million members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.