Clean-energy advocates are calling for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to investigate a list of 2,500 names submitted in support of utilities in two controversial rate cases.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) and RENEW Wisconsin say at least some of the people in the list have said they actually oppose the plans.

Experts say the rate proposals by We Energies and Madison Gas & Electric (MG&E) would have a devastating effect on solar energy in the state.

Consumer Energy Alliance, a Houston group that advocates in support of fossil fuel development, submitted to the Public Service Commission the names of 2,500 electricity customers statewide, in both We Energies and MG&E’s service territories. They said the people had signed a petition supporting the utilities’ proposals, which would make it much less financially viable to install solar energy, farm biogas digesters or other distributed generation.

However, people who CEA claimed signed the petition have since said they did not realize what the petition actually signified, and that they are not in support of the utilities’ proposals. An October 21 story in the Madison Capital Times quoted several customers saying they strongly opposed the utilities and were confused about how their names got linked to the petition.

The list included Michael Sinicki, husband of state Rep. Christine Sinicki, who opposes the utility plan, according to an Oct. 24 story in Express Milwaukee.

Names, but not signatures

At a public hearing on October 8 in Milwaukee regarding We Energies’ proposal, CEA state affairs director Ryan Scott promised to submit the signatures; and then submitted into the record a letter from CEA president David Holt along with a list of names. Holt’s letter stated that in the interest of saving paper, the names of signers were attached, though not the actual signatures. CEA also submitted that same letter and list in a separate comment filed as part of the proceeding.

The administrator of the October 8 hearing questioned Scott about the method of signature collection, as noted in the ELPC’s brief.

“Mr. Scott provided a CD, which he claimed provided the 2,500 electronic signatures of the individuals and the ‘petition,’” says the brief. “It became clear that some of the signatures were gathered through a telephone poll with no electronic or actual signatures provided.”

Under oath, the brief notes, Scott said that, “all these signatures and comments I am presenting are in support of the same statement and position.”

“It appears that a senior CEA representative testified under oath to the veracity of the signatures at a public hearing in Milwaukee,” said ELPC attorney Robert Kelter in a statement. “This raises serious questions about a process that relies on honest, sworn testimony and the examination of the facts in a case.”

Holt’s letter said the signers “believe every consumer should pay their fair share in maintaining the electrical grid. The petitioners believe changing the current rule will ensure that all ratepayers are treated fairly and electricity bills remain affordable.”

The utilities have argued that people who generate their own energy and use less from the grid are not paying enough to maintain infrastructure.

The advocates’ filing asks the Public Service Commission to determine if all the names listed are actually ratepayers who support the utility proposals; how and why CEA contacted the consumers; and whether the group has had ongoing contact with the utilities or other parties in the case.

The Public Service Commission’s decisions on the rate cases are expected later this year. The Public Service Commission could take the allegations against CEA into account in its decisions without investigating. If it investigated and found possible evidence of perjury under oath at the public hearing or anything else that warranted an investigation by the state attorney general, it could turn over that evidence.

‘Reliable energy’

The Consumer Energy Alliance is widely considered an “astroturf” group that orchestrates seemingly popular movements against government regulation and in support of fossil fuel industries.

The blog Southern Beale described links between the CEA and the Institute for Energy Research, which among other things hosts a website called The Story of Electricity. That site calls wind and solar “unreliable” sources of energy that make it hard for grid operators to “keep electricity supply and demand in balance,” putting “whole regions” at risk of blackouts. Meanwhile it calls “reliable energy” from nuclear, coal and natural gas plants an “everyday miracle.”

Clean energy advocates say that such links show the Wisconsin rate cases are part of a strategic, national attack on solar energy.

“These proposals are designed to do one thing – eliminate solar and stop competition,” said Bryan Miller, co-chairman of TASC.

The ELPC and RENEW Wisconsin are members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.