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Senate committee grills PSC chair on costs of Tony Evers’ carbon-free electricity goal

March 13, 2019

Wisconsin’s top utility regulator wouldn’t say what it might cost consumers to meet Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to make the state’s electricity carbon-free but vowed Tuesday to seek creative ways to manage the transition to a clean energy economy.

During a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Utilities and Housing Tuesday, Public Service Commission chairwoman Rebecca Valcq said the agency should strive “at a minimum” to maintain rates competitive with neighboring states.

Across all consumer sectors, Wisconsin electricity rates are now the second-highest in the Midwest.

In response to questions from committee chairman Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, Valcq said she would scrutinize every rate case that comes before the commission to find a reasonable balance between the financial health of utilities and the interests of ratepayers. But she would not speculate on what would constitute “reasonable” rates.

LeMahieu asked whether the Democratic governor consulted utilities before including in his budget proposal a statutory goal of generating all electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050.

Valcq said she did not know but noted that four of the state’s largest investor-owned utilities have committed to slashing 80 percent of carbon emissions by 2050 and one — Xcel Energy — has pledged to be carbon-free.

The transition will require a combination of efforts, Valcq said, including improvements to energy efficiency, technological advances in battery storage and financing mechanisms to ensure consumers aren’t stuck paying for obsolete fossil fuel plants if they are retired early.

“There’s no silver bullet,” she said. “If any state can get out in front of it and come up with good solutions, it’s Wisconsin.”

LeMahieu asked whether there would be a role for nuclear power — which currently supplies about 15 percent of the state’s electricity — in the governor’s vision.

“Intuitively I say it’s a carbon-free source,” Valcq said. “When you start talking about the waste … I don’t know how viable new nuclear generation would be in the future.”

Valcq, a former staff attorney for We Energies, took over the regulatory agency on March 2. The committee, which received endorsements from all of the state’s largest utilities as well as consumer and renewable energy groups, has not scheduled a vote on her confirmation.

Valcq said her other top priorities are finding ways to meet Evers’ goal of statewide broadband internet coverage and helping water utilities replace lead pipes.

Committee members also brought up concerns about air quality and opportunities for low-income residents to benefit from renewable energy.

“We’re keenly aware that there are utility customers out there who need a voice,” Valcq said.

Valcq, who is a member of Evers’ cabinet, assured the committee she sees her role as nonpartisan. Her fellow commissioners, Mike Huebsch and Ellen Nowak, were appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

“There are bipartisan solutions to be found on the energy, broadband and water issues those of us in this room need to tackle,” Valcq said. “I’m optimistic we will be able to work together.”

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