The Public Utility Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (WPUI) is another member-supported organization that is partially funded by “Sustaining Members,” which include the largest investor-owned utility companies operating in Wisconsin:
- Alliant Energy
- Madison Gas & Electric
- We Energies
- Wisconsin Public Service
- Xcel Energy
Each of the utilities have a representative on the Executive Board of WPUI, along with American Transmission Company (owned by the same utilities). The Executive Board also includes lawyers and consultants, who count utilities as some of their largest clients, and individuals from state agencies that regulate utilities, such as the Public Service Commission and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The publicly-stated mission of WPUI is to “advance understanding of public policy issues in the electricity and gas industries.” But as part of the flagship school of the University of Wisconsin system, WPUI is also bound by an enduring, century old obligation to the public: “The Wisconsin Idea is the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom. It spans UW-Madison’s teaching, research, outreach and public service.”
In early 2015, Governor Scott Walker proposed to gut the “Wisconsin Idea” and replace it as the mission of University of Wisconsin with more industry-friendly goals, such as, “meet the state’s workforce needs.” Governor Walker’s proposed changes to the mission of UW-Madison were abandoned in wake of strong public opposition, but efforts to redirect university resources from serving the public to serving industry were quietly unfolding at organizations like WPUI.
WPUI hosts several events annually that are of interest to public regulators: “WPUI’s Energy Utility Basics Fundamental Course,” “EEI Electric Rate Advanced Course: Rates to Address New Challenges,” and the “EEI Transmission and Wholesale Markets School.” The Energy Utility Basics (EUB) course is intended to teach attendees “practical knowledge of the operations and technology of the natural gas and electricity industries” because “in today’s fast-moving business environment, it is often advantageous to hire staff from other industries, bring in outside talent that does not yet have a working knowledge of the energy industry.” The EEI advanced rate course is strictly focused on ratemaking for staff of state utility commissions, while the EEI transmission program participants study transmission planning, operation issues, market designs, and upcoming policy issues.
The EEI advanced rate course has featured a reoccurring cast of influencers from the utility industry: Eric Ackerman (EEI), Larry Blank (CPU), John Caldwell (EEI), Larry Vogt (Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company), and Mary Lowry (Pacific Economics Group, which has several utility companies as clients: Arizona Public Service, Duke Energy, and Xcel Energy.)
Public records reveal that EEI suggested agenda topics for the EEI Electric Rate Advance Course. An email from Eric Ackerman, director of alternative regulation at EEI, proposed that the course cover the “Distribution 2020 Program.” When questioned about the program, Casimir Bielski, manager of rate and regulatory business at EEI, said,
Distribution 2020 is a project that started at EEI, basically in response to several trends, such as: 1) weak growth in load and sales, 2) increasing penetration of alternative forms of generation, like solar panels, wind, etc., and other new technologies like improved batteries. EEI has created a CEO task force on this and internal teams are working on such projects as defining the threats and opportunities and writing papers on possible industry responses, such as fixing net metering.
The program, Distribution 2020, is the title for a presentation that David Owens, EEI’s executive vice president, gave to the board of directors in 2012, which The Washington Post exposed in 2015. Owens asked the utility CEOs, “How do you grow earnings in this environment?” He then laid out an “action plan” to educate customers, state legislators, governors, regulators, and consumer advocates on the problems solar competition creates.
It appears that WPUI was incorporated into that action plan. The EEI rate course agenda incorporated the following topics: “Rate Design for Distributed Energy” and “Energy Efficiency and Renewables.”
In 2014, We Energies, Madison Gas & Electric, and the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation won the right to increase fixed charges from the state utility commission. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) granted approval to the three companies, which will drastically reduce the economic benefits of installing solar panels on homes. Adding to the controversy, PSC Commissioner Ellen Nowak made statements at an EEI conference earlier in the year, advocating for higher fixed fees. Bloomberg Business reports, “Nowak told the audience June 10 at an Edison Electric Institute conference that utilities should revise their rate structures, introducing fixed fees so customers who produce their own power with rooftop solar systems continue to pay enough to cover the costs of maintaining the grid.”
Joel Rogers, a professor of administrative law at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison, reviewed a transcript of her comments and said they could be seen as improperly offering advice.
“Appearing on a panel together goes right up to the edge of impropriety, but giving advice goes beyond that,” Rogers said today in an interview. “She should have recused herself.”
Recently, however, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Peter Anderson overturned the ruling that allows We Energies to charge customers who generate their own power. “The judge… determined that there was not sufficient evidence to support the decision made by the Public Service Commission, and ruled that he is vacating these fees,” said Tyler Huebner, RENEW Wisconsin Executive Director.
The controversies surrounding Wisconsin utility companies, commissioners, and EEI appears to have led to a member of the WPUI to raise concerns over their contract with EEI. According to January 2015 WPUI board minutes:
Peter Taglia raised concern over WPUI contracting with EEI to run two of their courses, as he is concerned about EEI’s increasing role in advocacy in state policy. Other board members expressed support for the courses and believed them to be factual and unbiased educational programs… It was suggested that WPUI write a disclaimer on any marketing materials that separates WPUI from the views of the organization that WPUI is contracting with.
Peter Taglia made a motion requiring that when WPUI is contracted to run a course from an outside entity and does not control the agenda, WPUI disclose on any promotional materials that is not a WPUI program and that the content is not provided by WPUI. Heather Liebham and Bob McKee suggested that the board wait until the next board meeting so that Carla Lee has time to ask EEI and other contractors about the appropriate language.
The motion did not receive a second, and thus the board did not vote a formal motion, but provided direction that the executive committee, along with Peter Taglia and Heather Liebham, the representative of the state’s largest utility, We Energies, will discuss the policy on all contracted courses and make a recommendation to the full board for the summer 2015 meeting.
EPI contacted Peter Taglia in December 2015 to learn what happened during the board meeting and how the discussion with Heather Liebham unfolded. Through a series of interviews, Taglia shared his firsthand account, detailing how he was ousted from WPUI’s board in the summer of 2015 and how the utility companies, along with their consultants, have used universities to spread a pro-industry message.
After his presentations at WPUI’s 2014 Energy Utility Basics Fundamental Course, Taglia approached the executive director of WPUI to express his concern that course presentations reflected too much of the utility business viewpoint. Taglia shared an email with EPI, dated October 23, 2014, several days after that year’s annual utility basics course. In the email, Taglia writes:
Hi Sam [Carla Lee (Sam) Mahany Braithwait],
I thought the program went well on Tuesday but a couple things are bothering me and I’d like to chat about them when you are done with EUB [Energy Utility Basics]. My thoughts below about EUB, my concern is also present in the way WPUI operates on other programs as well as with the board.
I’m concerned that WPUI needs more balance. I looked through the entire EUB agenda and saw not a single advocate other than myself. And you didn’t want me to name any utilities in a negative light, despite the fact that MGE [Madison Gas and Electric] has two entire slots in the agenda and Bollom gets to present his entire side of the fixed fee argument?
[Gregory Bollom is the Assistant Vice President of Energy Planning for Madison Gas and Electric. During the Public Service Commission public hearing on the utility’s proposed rate hike, Bollom admitted that their plan would indeed reduce the incentive to save energy.]
Utilities, consultants, academics and ancillary businesses are in the agenda, but no advocates. Are we lacking for intelligent advocates around here? Did you try to get any advocates from consumer or environmental groups on but they wouldn’t do it for free? If so, we should consider how to deal with that. How about businesses that have been opposing utilities? Charter Steel?
The utilities have the Wisconsin Utility Association and other memberships where they can disseminate information to stakeholders and the public about utility issues. I hope WPUI can serve a broader role.
Let me know if you are available to talk next week. If you think some of my points are valid I’d love to brainstorm with you possible solutions.
The concerns raised by Taglia were ignored, which led him to again raise the problem at the aforementioned January 2015 board meeting noting that WPUI has an uncomfortably close relationship with utilities. Taglia told EPI he raised the concerns about the lack of balance in programs such as the Energy Utility Basics course and WPUI’s continued involvement with EEI particularly in light of We Energies using EEI materials in public outreach to explain the company’s decision to raise fixed rates and tax solar.
When asked why there was no second for his motion at the January 2015 meeting, Taglia said:
I was the only representative with an environmental or consumer viewpoint at the meeting. The representative of the Citizens Utility Board for Wisconsin could not make the meeting, which was understandable since the legislature had recently cut their budget and they had just lost their executive director. All other participants on the board either represented utilities, represented consulting firms, organizations or businesses with utilities as members or clients, or were representing agencies of the state of Wisconsin or the university. The Walker administration has made no secret about their views on climate change and renewable energy with widespread reporting about how state employees are discouraged from discussing climate change and other threats to business interests.
Taglia also told EPI about three subsequent meetings. At a WPUI board meeting in February, he again raised the concern that WPUI was presenting only the industry viewpoint and ignoring the intense state-wide debate on utility rates.
In March, the Executive Committee of the WPUI board finally met to discuss the concerns Taglia raised. At this meeting, Taglia learned that WPUI is paid to host the EEI Transmission and Wholesale Markets Course, and that WPUI has no editorial oversight of the course. When asked again why Taglia was concerned with WPUI’s relationships with the utility industry, Taglia pointed out that We Energies used EEI materials to promote their controversial rate structure and this created an unprecedented level of opposition from consumer and equity groups.
Months later in June, DiStefano contacted Taglia to inform him that the nominated committee decided not to renominate him. In July and August, WPUI again hosted the EEI Electric Rate Advance Course and the EEI Transmission and Wholesale Markets School.
Today, the environmental position is represented by Frank Greb of the nonprofit Seventhwave, which according to their website receives financial support from Allete, Alliant Energy, Madison Gas & Electric, We Energies, Wisconsin Public Service, and Xcel Energy. And now that Kira Loehr is an energy and environmental lawyer with Foley & Lardner LLP representing both utility and consumer groups, it appears that there are no consumer groups represented on WPUI’s board.