How Wisconsin Regulators ‘Tax’ Renewable Energy

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Midwest Energy News. Author credit goes to Michael Vickerman.

Starting next January, the price of purchasing renewable energy voluntarily through monthly utility bills will spike to all-time highs, thanks to recent decisions rendered by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSCW) on two popular “green pricing” programs.

The thousands of Madison Gas & Electric (MGE) customers participating in the utility’s Green Power Tomorrow program will see their premiums jump from 2.5 cents/kWh to 4 cents/kWh. That’s an increase of 60 percent. To translate this into dollars and cents, an average MGE customer consuming 500 kWh of electricity per month and subscribing at the 100 percent level will pay $90 more in 2013 for the same amount of renewable kWh sold this year.

Residential customers of Milwaukee-based We Energies (WE) will see an even larger percentage increase next year. In that utility’s rate case, the PSCW jacked up the premium paid by Energy for Tomorrow subscribers by nearly 73 percent, from 1.39 cents to 2.4 cents/kWh. Energy for Tomorrow has more than 20,000 subscribers.

image via Shutterstock

Back in 1999, the year both programs were launched, MGE and WE customers paid an extra 3.33 cents and 2.04 cents/kWh, respectively, for the renewable energy they sponsored. Come January 1st, MGE and WE will likely share the dubious distinction of being the only utilities in the country offering renewable energy at a higher rate than they did in the 1990’s. So much for progress.

Adding insult to injury, renewable program subscribers will be subject to general rate increases approved by the PSCW this November. The utilities sought higher rates to recover the costs of retrofitting older coal-fired power stations with modern pollution controls. The fact that the renewable generators leveraged by program participants will never need pollution control retrofits is wholly disregarded in determining the size of the premium.

This is unquestionably a subsidy that flows from program participants to all ratepayers.

How did this happen?

Since 1999, renewable generation costs have tumbled, while productivity has improved.
A frustrated program subscriber might well ask: If base utility rates are going up, and the cost of renewable electricity is declining, why are premiums going up instead of down?

The short answer is that wholesale electricity prices have sagged in recent years, owing to a combination of unsustainably low natural gas prices, stagnant demand, and rapid expansion of wind power displacing higher-cost generation. In contrast, the price of renewable energy procured under long-term contracts held steady. When prices dropped in the wholesale market beginning in late 2008, the gap between system energy and renewable sources widened.

Though accurate, the above explanation is deeply unsatisfying, because the wholesale “market” is concerned about one thing only: the marginal cost of producing electricity into the grid. Nothing else matters, including the expenditures approved by the PSCW to reduce emissions from older generators. Even though retail customers wind up footing the bill for those upgrades, the wholesale market does not treat pollution control retrofits as marginal costs. Not one cent paid by ratepayers for these expenditures is reflected in the prices that renewable generators compete against.

The net effect of this disconnect is to artificially suppress the price of electricity from older and dirtier generators relative to newer and cleaner electricity producers. Real markets factor in the cost of upgrading and replacing capital equipment that manufacture the product bought by customers. What we have instead is an artificial contrivance that sacrifices long-term considerations like clean air, resource diversity and regulatory risk for the short-term reward of low prices.

Indeed, it would be difficult to design a more punitive market structure for renewables than the one we have at present.

Midwest Energy News, launched in 2010, is a nonprofit news site dedicated to keeping stakeholders, policymakers, and citizens informed of the important changes taking place as the Midwest shifts from fossil fuels to a clean energy system.