“WEC has shown how the proposed transaction will provide hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits for shareholders, lawyers, bankers, and customers in other states while providing nothing for Wisconsin customers but increased risks,” CUB wrote.
If approved, the huge utility will serve more than 4.3 million customers.
Wisconsin Energy subsidiary, We Energies, provides electricity to residents as far west as the Deerfield and Marshall areas in Dane County. Integrys includes Green Bay utility company Wisconsin Public Service.
Last August a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie temporarily shut down Toledo, Ohio’s water source leaving questions about the long term viability of that source of water for about 400,000 people. This was fueled not only by warm temperatures but nutrient rich runoff. Nutrient pollution has recently been connected to adverse impacts for ecological and economic systems across the Great Lakes Region. A two-day symposium in Chicago is examining the current state of nutrient management in the Great Lakes, what policies are working and how stakeholders can work towards solutions. Aquatic Ecologist Nancy Tuchman and Gail Hesse of the Ohio Lake Erie Commission sift through some of these issues.
CHICAGO — Note to corporate agriculture: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has inspectors in the sky looking down at you.
Susan Hedman, the EPA’s Midwest regional administrator, said Thursday night at a Great Lakes conference her agency has had inspectors in small planes the last three years looking for manure-management violations by large livestock operations known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Ms. Hedman declined to provide specifics, saying the occasional flyovers are an enforcement tool. But she said the federal EPA has found it useful in taking legal action against some CAFOs with large manure releases, and sees expansion potential. The surveillance is not spying: The agriculture industry is notified in advance when the agency will be flying in the Great Lakes region, she said.
“That’s a very good use of inspector time,” Ms. Hedman told The Blade following her presentation.
The event, a two-day Great Lakes symposium sponsored by Chicago’s Environmental Law & Policy Center, drew a large Ohio contingent and put last August’s algae-induced Toledo water crisis at center stage. It concluded Friday.
The following is an opinion piece written by Tyler Huebner and Brad Klein. Huebner is the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a renewable advocacy organization in the state. Klein is a senior attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, an environmental advocacy organization in the Midwest.
Last fall, we participated first-hand in three Wisconsin utility proposals relating to fixed charges and distributed generation.
More recently, we have followed the recent op-eds in Utility Dive from Dr. H. Edwin Overcast and Dr. Ashley C. Brown on fixed charges and net metering. One thing stood out to us in their editorials: Lots of words, but almost no actual data!
To remedy this — as our organizations did in last year’s rate cases for these Wisconsin utilities — we will provide some numbers.
Digging into the data
In Wisconsin, all three utilities argued that customers with solar panels are not paying their fair share of the utilities’ fixed costs, and therefore every single customer should see their monthly connection fee go up from $9-$10 per month to $16-$25 per month.
Raising the monthly connection fee hurts low-using energy customers, who, asthe National Consumer Law Center found, are often low-income, minorities, fixed-income, apartment dwellers, and senior citizens.
Let’s put Wisconsin’s level of solar adoption in perspective compared with the dramatic fixed charge increases requested.
Wisconsin Public Service
Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), based in Green Bay, serves approximately 445,000 electric customers. Of these, only 340 have installed distributed generation in the past 10 years — 0.08% of their customer base.
Further, even WPS conceded that the majority of those customers — 65%, or 221 homeowners — were fully paying their fixed costs under the utility’s way of counting. That is because, although they have solar, these 221 customers’ photovoltaic systems don’t provide all their electricity usage.
The total unrecovered revenue requirement — what the utility thinks it should earn but doesn’t because solar customers invest in solar on their roofs — amounts to only $21,000 for the entire year. That is approximately 0.002% of the company’s total 2013 monopoly revenue.
This is how WPS solves its “problem” — it seeks to shift $6.5 million from variable rates into unavoidable monthly fees for each customer, in order to offset a theoretical shortfall of only $21,000 caused by 119 customers who installed solar equipment largely at their own expense.
Next up: We Energies, based in Milwaukee, which serves approximately 1.1 million electric customers. It requested an increase in monthly connection fees from $9.13 to $16, which will shift more than $7 million a year from usage-based rates to guaranteed fixed monthly fees. We Energies also proposed to apply additional charges on residential and small business customers with their own distributed generation systems, which would amount to about $20 per month for a 5 kW solar PV system — $3.80 per kW per month, to be specific.
About 450 We Energies customers have distributed generation and use net metering, or just 0.04% of their customers. The increased fixed charges and solar charges on those 450 customers will amount to about $117,000, or about 0.004% of the utility’s revenues.
Madison Gas & Electric
Finally, Madison Gas & Electric used similar arguments to request monthly fixed fees rise from about $10 to $19 (after backing off plans to raise them significantly higher in future years). Just 0.14% of their customers use net metering.
‘Swatting a fly with a nuclear weapon’
Collectively, only 6 out of every 10,000 customers for these utilities have distributed generation. “Swatting a fly with a nuclear weapon” is the type of analogy that should be used when considering these Wisconsin proposals, and the result is a “cure” that’s much worse than the disease.
Especially when the disease hasn’t even been proven to exist. The only analysis in the record concerning Wisconsin-based costs and benefits of distributed generation was gathered through a data request: a 2009 study commissioned by We Energies and conducted by Clean Power Research, which concluded that solar PV is worth about 15 cents per kWh at a levelized value for 30 years (see page ES-3). Since We Energies’ electric rates were about 13.9 cents per kWh in 2014, it turns out that solar customers may very well be subsidizing all other We Energies ratepayers.
Unfortunately, none of the utilities offered any new analysis of the benefits of distributed generation in these proceedings. Nearly every intervening organization suggested that the Wisconsin Commission conduct real studies looking at the costs and benefits of net metering and distributed generation as has been done in Vermont (see section 3.3.3), Nevada, Mississippi, Minnesota, and other states. The Utah Commission told Rocky Mountain Power to beef up their analysis, too (see page 66). But in Wisconsin, that suggestion was denied.
Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission has been approving the utilities’ distributed generation restrictions for years despite the repeated lack of evidence. RENEW Wisconsin, the local renewable energy advocacy organization, has been forced to take these unsupported decisions to court. Luckily, it has prevailed on three of the four counts brought the past two years, with the judge remanding decisions back to the Commission for further fact-finding. Along with The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), RENEW hasappealed the 2014 We Energies solar charge decision as well.
Does net metering really hurt the poor?
In an op-ed in Utility Dive, Dr. Brown states that one of his primary concerns with net metering is that it may hurt the poor.
In his testimony here in Wisconsin, he provided absolutely no state-specific data to support his theory that solar owners, who make up just 4 of every 10,000 We Energies customers, are causing undue hardship on the poor. Further, he offered no alternative to the higher fixed customer charges which unquestionably do hurt many of We Energies’ low-income ratepayers.
The result of the Wisconsin rate cases is that a typical apartment-dwelling customer served by these utilities will pay $60-$75 more each year for electricity. Even granting the utilities’ extreme position that excess solar is worth nothing more than the cheapest electron you can buy on the market — contradicted by We Energies’ own 2009 study mentioned above — those same customers paid no more than a dime a year extra due to current solar customers.
Solar customers and the future of the utility industry
There is no doubt that the electricity industry is entering a new phase in Wisconsin and other states due to declining sales and the ever-increasing affordability of solar panels for customers. Thus far however, the small number of solar customers here in Wisconsin does not require wholesale changes to how we set rates. We have plenty of time to get these policies right and many, if not almost all, other states are in the same boat.
Our advice from the trenches in Wisconsin to utilities and Commissions in other states: Follow the lead of Vermont, Nevada, Mississippi, Minnesota, Maine, Utah, and other states on this issue — not Wisconsin’s 2014 decisions. Do the studies. Get the data. Hash out the details.
The best way to address this industry transition is with solid analysis of the utility’s actual situation, open discussion, and a long-run, forward-looking view. Not by ramming through “back to the past” electric rate policies against broad objections from citizens and that undisputedly harm low-use and fixed-income customers who can least afford the higher bills they now have to pay.
MADISON, Wis. – Solar- and wind-energy companies account for a lot of jobs and economic activity in Wisconsin, according to a new report that says the state has huge growth potential in renewable energy. Renewables are a big part of the state’s economy, said Andy Olsen, senior policy adviser at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which released the report.
“There’s over 6,800 jobs from wind and solar companies alone, in addition to other renewable technologies, and over 500 companies profiting from renewable-energy growth,” he said. “So, there’s great economic opportunity here, especially for a state like Wisconsin with a strong manufacturing base. And what our report showed is that a lot of small businesses have benefited from renewable-energy growth.”
He pointed to advantages such as the state’s top university system and research institutes that have helped to develop new technologies and find new ways for them to succeed in the marketplace. The report also cited Wisconsin’s central location in the United States as a benefit for the state’s renewable-energy companies. The report made the point that renewable energy is Wisconsin’s only domestic energy source; no others are produced in the Badger State.
Although the state has made major strides in renewable energy, it said Wisconsin recently has begun to fall behind in terms of wind and solar development. Matt Neumann, president of the Pewaukee-based solar energy firm SunVest Co., echoed that warning and said the state is at an important crossroads.
“The opportunity is being capitalized on by other states throughout the country, and we have to make a choice of whether or not we’re going to stick with a 20th-century energy portfolio or whether we’re going to move into the 21st century,” he said. “If we as a state are serious about job creation, we’d better get serious about supporting innovation and technology related to the energy sector.”
Wind and solar energy support about 30,000 jobs at about a thousand companies in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, according to a series of reports released by the Environmental Law & Policy Center over the past two weeks.
The reports show the jobs created not only by the manufacture of wind turbine components, the building of wind farms and the installation of solar panels, but also in related businesses from banking to making cables and glass.
“We continue to be impressed by the robustness and the diversity of these jobs,” said ELPC executive director Howard Learner. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. There are headquarters and manufacturing and construction jobs, retrofitting jobs, legal and insurance jobs, design and engineering, it’s really a diverse mix of skills for all types of companies.”
The ELPC is a member of RE-AMP, which publishesMidwest Energy News.
The supply chains have remained robust even as wind and solar have faced policy uncertainty at the state and federal level.
The ELPC and other groups say the renewal of the federal Production Tax Credit is crucial to future wind development and its supply chain impacts. The Siemens wind turbine blade plant in Fort Madison, Iowa laid off more than 400 of its 660 employees in 2012 because of uncertainty over the PTC. Many of those workers were rehired when the PTC was extended, the ELPC report notes, but now the credit is again in limbo.
Meanwhile the federal Investment Tax Credit which supports solar installations is in effect through 2016, with proponents hoping for a renewal.
In all three states and across the Midwest, federal grants under the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) pay up to a quarter of the cost for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects at farms or small rural businesses. In 2014 Congress authorized continued funding of $250 million for five years.
The ELPC released its Iowa report on March 5, just before a major agricultural summit in Des Moines where Republican presidential hopefuls discussed their views.
Learner said renewable energy and the federal tax credits will likely be an issue in the presidential election, and the special role that Iowa plays is notable since public support for wind power in Iowa is strong.
SCOTUS: Amtrak Has Legal Authority to Set On-Time Performance Standards
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today affirming Amtrak’s power to create on-time performance standards could get slumping Midwest arrival times back on track.
“This is a good Supreme Court decision that should help rail passengers across the country,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case. “For every passenger who has been delayed for hours in Northwest Indiana or outside of Cleveland while oil tanker cars slog by, today’s court decision can be an important step forward.”
The Association of American Railroads challenged a federal law that allows Amtrak to help set on-time performance standards for railroads, arguing that Amtrak is a private company rather than a government entity. The Supreme Court, agreeing with the Department of Transportation and ELPC, held that Amtrak is more like a government entity.
The DC Court of Appeals had struck down a provision of the 2008 rail reauthorization bill that instructed the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak—consulting with the Surface Transportation Board, freight railroads, states, rail labor, and rail passenger organizations—to develop metrics and minimum standards for measuring Amtrak passenger train performance and service quality.
“Today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling settles that legal question,” Learner said. “Amtrak is a government entity. Given this ruling, the existing on-time performance standards should be enforced and passenger rail should again be given priority.”
In an amicus curiae brief filed by ELPC, on behalf of itself and the National Association of Railroad Passengers, All Aboard Ohio and Virginians for High Speed Rail, ELPC found that on-time arrival rates had suffered since the appeals court ruling. In 2012, Amtrak achieved a nationwide on-time performance rate of 83 percent. Since the standards were invalidated by the Court of Appeals, on-time performance fell to an abysmal 42 percent.
While this is a major victory for Amtrak passengers across the nation, the Supreme Court’s ruling does raise the possibility of a lengthy court fight should the Association of American Railroads seek to continually litigate other issues around on-time performance.
“The highest court in the land has spoken and we hope is that freight railroads will move forward as a partner to improve passenger rail service across America,” added Learner.
Today the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to authorize $8 billion in Amtrak funding. While the U.S. Senate still needs to consider the matter, this vote is a victory for ELPC and allies, who have been fighting back against anti-Amtrak amendments – including one introduced earlier this week that would have eliminated all funding for Amtrak, effectively ending all long-distance and state Amtrak train service.
Almost 700 ELPC followers and thousands of others throughout the country wrote to their Members of Congress with a clear message: Americans want a strong national train network and elected officials who support. This grassroots support played a huge role in securing today’s bipartisan vote.
Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter Published: Friday, February 27, 2015
Ask Chicago environmentalists who’s the Windy City’s best lawyer, and they’re likely to name Howard Learner.
Learner has built his Environmental Law and Policy Center into a Midwest powerhouse over the last 20 years on transportation and clean energy issues, scoring victories in courtrooms and state legislatures along the way.
His shop eschews the national spotlight for a hyper-regional focus that he says is part of the group’s DNA.
“First of all, we are Midwesterners,” he said. “The Midwest is probably the most important region in the most important country in the world.”
ELPC is among a few regional environmental law centers that operate in the gap between national Goliaths like the Natural Resources Defense Council and small grass-roots organizations. The center takes on major litigation — fighting lawsuits brought by former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon, arguing for solar and wind energy in state Supreme Courts, and battling Great Lakes pollution. Moreover, it has developed a lobbying operation that pressures government officials — from U.S. senators to mayors — to support environmentally progressive policies.
Learner prides himself on leading a “grass-tops” organization, meaning it seeks to unite leaders from often-opposing camps — such as unions and local chambers of commerce — to push for common goals.
Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but ELPC is now thriving, thanks largely to Learner’s grasp of regional politics.
“He has steered clear of the weird political fights,” said J. Paul Forrester, an energy and agricultural specialist at Mayer Brown in Chicago. “He has a lot of political acumen. I give him a lot of credit for that. That’s helped him avoid ugly confrontation.”
Learner, 59, lives a mile-and-a-half from where he was born in Chicago. The son of a University of Wisconsin football player, he’s well over 6 feet tall and bearded. He cuts an imposing presence that he establishes right away with a firm handshake.
Growing up as an outdoorsman, Learner biked across Wisconsin several times and always had a backpack ready for weekend trips. He attended the University of Michigan and remains a devoted fan of the Wolverine football team, then headed to Harvard Law School.
He returned to Chicago with his law degree and worked for a public interest law firm that specialized in housing cases. Learner launched the group’s environmental practice and specialized in pro bono work.
In 1991, seven major foundations pooled funds and asked several local lawyers for proposals for a regional-based legal center to address environmental programs in the Midwest. Such a group didn’t exist, and, as Learner recalled, there were ample reasons the region needed one.
The Great Lakes contain nearly a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people. At the time, electricity utilities were becoming more regionally focused, building power lines across state borders. The Midwest was also home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Three-quarters of the pollution in the Great Lakes was coming from the energy and transportation sectors.
The region also served as the nexus of multiple types of transportation; interstate highways crisscross the area, as do major railways. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport serves as a hub of air travel in the region.
“If you are serious about solving our climate change problems, and you’re serious about keeping the Great Lakes clean,” Learner said, “you need to deal with the energy and transportation sectors on a regional basis.”
Learner applied for the funding, basing his proposal in part on other regional outfits like the Conservation Law Foundation in New England, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on the West Coast, which has since become Earthjustice.
The foundations backed Learner, guaranteeing $850,000 per year for three years. He left his practice, rented a storefront and started assembling furniture.
At the core of the group’s philosophy from the start, Learner said, was devising “pragmatic solutions” that paired environmental benefits with economic growth and job creation. Now such proposals are increasingly common among environmental groups, but at the time they weren’t.
Learner pledged that whenever his group came out against a project or proposal, it would say yes to a less harmful alternative.
“We said from the beginning we weren’t going to get boxed in as naysayers,” he said.
ELPC now has an annual budget of more than $6.5 million and about 50 employees in eight offices throughout the Midwest. It divides its efforts into two groups. Its strategic advocacy arm lobbies and files lawsuits to fight what it views as environmentally harmful policies. And second, it brings parties together to come up with “eco-business” deals and proposals, such as working with labor unions, local chambers of commerce and officials to facilitate solar and wind energy development in the Midwest, or a regional high-speed rail network.
Those efforts have yielded results. Iowa is the second-largest wind energy producer in the country, and Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas all rank within the top 10. And plans for a regional high-speed rail proposal to serve 60 million people in eight states are starting to jell. The St. Louis-to-Chicago-to-Detroit line is being built, and sections already run at 110 mph. The effort has garnered the support of the Obama administration, which committed $13 billion in the 2009 stimulus package.
Looking for opportunity
ELPC’s success is due in large part to Learner’s relentlessness.
Jerry Adelmann, president of the Chicago-based Openlands conservation group, said it typically takes Learner “two seconds” to respond to an email.
“He lives and breathes this stuff,” Adelmann said. “It’s part of his very being.”
To his foes — which are typically entrenched energy utilities — Learner can come off as a zealot. But he has overcome such criticism through political adeptness, which is unusual for someone who wears his Democratic-leaning politics on his sleeve.
Learner was Illinois delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and has served on political committees that others in the nongovernmental organization community would likely shy away from out of fear of reprisals from the other side.
“Howard is out front in terms of his politics,” Adelmann said.
Learner seems to dodge most blowback, though, largely because of his instincts.
“I think Howard is one of those visionary leaders,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines, Iowa, office. “His mind is always spinning, and he sort of sees the direction that things are moving. He is constantly trying to anticipate what opportunities will present themselves and constantly trying to take advantage of them in a strategic way.”
That doesn’t mean ELPC doesn’t have critics.
Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said it’s possible to have a “reasonable conversation” with ELPC. But he stressed that the group often presses for more stringent environmental controls than his members can support.
“Bottom line is, we think a big part of their agenda results in very little environmental improvement but huge costs,” Maisch said.
He added that ELPC’s coalition building is often less successful than the group says.
“Their attempts,” he said, “to bring people together to build a consensus — a lot more of those fail than succeed.”
Battling energy tycoon
Learner and ELPC can nevertheless point to significant achievements, both on the large and small scale.
ELPC was part of a coalition that pushed for the closure of two old power plants in 2012 on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s last two coal-fired facilities. Before that, it fought to ensure that wastewater was treated before utilities discharged it into the Chicago River.
And last summer, ELPC lawyers secured an Iowa Supreme Court victory in challenging an Iowa Utilities Board decision that created an unfavorable and expensive environment for solar energy development in the state.
There is also a strong “defender of the little guy” thread to their work. Perhaps no case illustrates that better than ELPC’s work for a small community in Saugatuck, Mich., against former Chesapeake CEO McClendon.
An artsy Lake Michigan resort town with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, Saugatuck is a 2½-hour drive from Chicago. In summer, tourists visit the town’s art galleries, shops and renowned beach dunes. The community has sought to protect those attractions from development by passing strict zoning laws.
Those efforts were threatened, however, in 2007, when McClendon bought 412 acres at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River that the town had been trying to make part of the public domain and conserve for 50 years.
McClendon wanted to build a gated community and resort on the land, with a nine-hole golf course, hotel, mansions and condos. Within 30 days of purchasing the property, he filed a series of lawsuits challenging Saugatuck’s zoning laws.
Overwhelmed, David Swan and the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance turned to Learner for help.
ELPC took the cases, and Swan said the group’s attorneys became part of the community. They also provided communications and marketing support to Swan and his allies.
They were able to halt McClendon’s development. In November 2011, a federal district court judge threw out a settlement between McClendon and the Saugatuck Township Board that would have essentially removed zoning provisions from the property. The judge ruled that the settlement would have illegally prevented the board from ever updating its zoning laws for the property.
Further, the court held that any future such settlement would require a hearing to ensure it benefits the “public good.”
There remains some ongoing litigation, but the community has since bought back half the land McClendon purchased. And, Swan said, nothing has been built on McClendon’s land.
Swan credits ELPC with saving the dunes — and his community.
“It just kind of amazed me,” Swan said. “Here was a really brilliant attorney, who is really busy with huge projects, and he doesn’t let small projects like trying to save 400 acres of pristine duneland fall by the wayside.”
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