Credit: Jordan Richmond / Creative Commons

A Wisconsin utility is squaring off with a former staffer of the state Public Service Commission over the use of comments from its recent community engagement process.

Nancy Korda, who coordinated energy conservation and long-range planning programs for Madison (MGE) and the state before retiring 12 years ago, is demanding that Madison Gas & Electric provide her with the comments from public discussions held in 2015 and notes from an invitation-only “community energy workshop” the utility hosted in April, both part of the engagement process for its Energy 2030 plan for cleaner power.

Korda is an intervenor with official status in MGE’s ongoing rate case, and she argues that the information she is requesting through the discovery process may be relevant because it reflects customers’ comments on rate structure.

At the heart of the issue is the controversial increase in fixed rates that MGE implemented in its last rate case in late 2014, among a rash of such increases in Wisconsin that advocates say make it harder to finance rooftop solar. Amid public opposition, MGE promised not to increase fixed rates in the current case. But Korda and other residents want them to roll back the latest fixed-rate increase.

MGE argues that the material from the engagement process is not relevant to the ongoing rate case, in part since this rate case was initially filed before that process took place. In filings before an administrative judge, the utility argued they should not have to turn over this material. The utility is also moving to strike portions of Korda’s testimony from the official case that will go before the Public Service Commission.

“Testimony on rate design must address the specific components of a proposed rate, or specific policy implications of that rate,” said MGE spokesperson Dana Breuck. “We’re seeking to strike portions of testimony that fall outside of the scope of the proceedings and outside of the law that governs them.”

MGE’s filing says: “It would be a waste of time and a disservice to the other parties, Commission staff and the Commissioners to burden the record with discussion of the views of Ms. Korda – or MGE – on MGE’s public outreach efforts.”

Critics, including the community group RePower Madison, say that calling Korda’s request “a waste of time” is a slap in the face to residents who participated in the workshops and discussions and who were promised that MGE would take their comments to heart.

A seat at the table

If the judge does not strike the testimony, Korda explained that a question asking whether the fixed-rate increase should be rolled back would be part of the decision-making matrix used by the service commission. MGE could file a rebuttal or cross-examine Korda as part of the process.

Korda, who co-chaired Madison’s energy conservation committee for three years and wrote an energy plan for the city, said the information she requested “has the potential to show that MGE has not listened to or fully educated customers/stockholders in many areas but especially in relation to the increase in customer charge and decrease in energy charge proposed and approved.”

In its motion opposing Korda’s request, MGE said: “The information she seeks is irrelevant to this proceeding, is not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, and granting her motion would establish a dangerous precedent allowing intervenors to investigate an Applicant’s decision process rather than its proposals. Indeed, Ms. Korda’s data requests demonstrate her apparent interest in re-litigating MGE’s previous rate case and not addressing issues relevant to the 2017 test year rate case.”

An administrative law judge ruled that MGE does not have to provide Korda with the documents from the discussions. A decision on whether her testimony will be stricken from the record is still pending.

Compiling comments

In addition to seeking the material from the workshops and discussions, Korda is demanding the official case presented to the Public Service Commission include summaries of public opinion distilled from the hundreds of public comments filed in the docket, both during the last rate case and the current one.

“The Public Service Commission in its order [on the last rate case] did say there were 1,000 comments but they didn’t note that 90 percent were in opposition to the fixed-rate increase,” said Korda, who sees her role as representing those people “who were not listened to.”

“I argued that from now on the commission should have a place where what the public has said is in the record,” she continued. “Right now all 1,000 comments are in the record, but you would have had to go in and read each one individually in order to know what people said. I’m suggesting that someone – I’d do it myself in this case – should read them and summarize.”

The public comment period on MGE’s current rate case is open through September 19.

Korada is also calling for a statewide public dialogue on rate structures. She installed solar panels on her own roof four years ago as part of a city group-buy program. She is grandfathered in under MGE’s rate case with the fixed-rate increase, so her bill didn’t change significantly. But like other solar advocates, she worries the fixed rates MGE customers are now paying will discourage new solar.

In that last rate case MGE had reduced the amount it charges per kilowatt-hour of electricity used, a move that normally comes in tandem with fixed-rate increases. In the current rate case, MGE is seeking to increase the rate for the amount of energy used by 1.7 percent.

Calling for transparency

RePower Madison organizer Mitch Brey has long been demanding MGE make public the results of the community discussions and energy workshop. RePower Madison is a citizen group that formed around MGE’s 2014 fixed-rate increase.

“They have selected comments available on their website but there’s no way to know if those are really representative, or if those are just comments they like that they selected to share,” he said. “They say they received over 200 comments during the community energy workshop, but they’ve only got a couple dozen posted on their website. I don’t see any reason they ‘d want to keep that from public.”

He said the utility’s response to Korda’s filings feeds skepticism about the community discussions and workshop.

“MGE seems to be saying one thing to the public and another to the commission, it makes it seem like the public conversations were more about public relations than anything else,” he said. “They got all this input from customers and then they are going to great lengths not to discuss it. If MGE really were listening to customers, they’d be proposing a decrease of their mandatory fixed fees.”

Dana Brueck, a spokeswoman for MGE, said the utility “has listened and continues to listen to our customers. Any suggestion that MGE’s history of engagement is strictly public relations would be misleading based upon our established record.”

She said the engagement process was used to inform the Energy 2030 plan “and will continue to guide our implementation of that framework over many years.” She said the utility has already “taken steps informed by community input,” including launching a shared solar program.

Brueck added that the utility held a similar engagement process a decade ago, and used that input to inform its Energy 2015 framework.

“This is important because those original conversations resulted in MGE discontinuing coal at our downtown power plant; increasing our renewable energy by almost 12 times and reducing our carbon emissions by 20 percent between 2005 and 2015,” she said.

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.

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