Some critics of the move are skeptical of the linkage between expanding broadband service and improved efforts to help utility customers save on their energy bills.
(TNS) -- Wisconsin energy regulators are considering a move to expand funding for broadband Internet services via fees collected on monthly electric and natural gas bills.
The move is being contemplated, the state Public Service Commission says, with an eye toward expanding the reach of the state’s Focus on Energy program in rural parts of the state.
The PSC said that based on a preliminary review, utility customers in rural Wisconsin don't participate in the Focus on Energy program as much as those in urban areas. Rural areas also are served by fewer broadband providers, the agency said.
The agency also said it's concerned about the ability of Focus on Energy program to market its programs in areas with "insufficient access to high-speed internet that could help support effective online advertising and social media campaigns."
But some critics of the move are skeptical of the linkage between expanding broadband service and improved efforts to help utility customers save on their energy bills. Instead, they see the move as a way to find a source of funding, this time from energy utility customers, for broadband expansion.
"I want to challenge the idea that broadband will necessarily increase participation in Focus on Energy programs," said Kathy Kuntz, a former administrator of the Focus program. "I support the premise that everyone should have access to broadband, but broadband services do not prompt energy efficiency."
Critics fear that the PSC would shift dollars from Focus on Energy’s core missions — to help cut utility customers' energy use and boost deployment of small renewable energy systems — in order to deploy those dollars for other purposes.
The PSC solicited input on how it should proceed and received comments from about two dozen organizations, from utilities to energy-efficiency advocates and environmental groups.
Some utilities responded that they would like to see Focus dollars spent the way they have been, with Madison Gas and Electric Co. saying "the test" for using Focus dollars "should be maximizing energy savings statewide. MGE believes the funds should not be used in any way that would diminish the opportunities customers have for participating in Focus energy efficiency and renewable programming."
However, Alliant Energy Corp. weighed in, favoring the initiative. "We support the commission’s intent to examine how greater access to broadband services could improve rural electric customers’ participation in the statewide energy efficiency and renewable resource programs," the Madison-based utility said.
Supporters of continuing to fund energy-saving and renewable energy programs said studies have shown it to be cost-effective. The Focus on Energy program,, which funds discounts on energy-saving light bulbs as well and other moves to make homes and businesses more efficient, currently spends about $92 million a year and studies have shown has consistently delivered a payback of at least three times that, or at least $3 returned for every $1 invested.
"We do not support using Focus on Energy funding for purposes other than energy efficiency and renewable energy," the clean energy group RePower Madison said.
According to the PSC, about $3.2 million is collected from rural parts of the state for Focus, and several organizations urged the commission to cap any funding for rural customers at that amount. Expanding the number of cooperatives that participate in Focus would be another way to boost participation, the PSC and others agreed.
Renewable energy organizations and companies expressed concern that the PSC would fund a broadband initiative but not fund renewable energy projects the way it has in recent years. Noting high demand for grants that Focus issued in recent years, Renew Wisconsin urged the commission to support allocating $5 million in 2017 and $5 million in 2018 for renewable energy grants. Renew also said it would support increased investment by Focus in dairy-farm manure digesters that convert cow manure into energy.
Efforts to cut energy use help the state delay the need for new power plants, supporters of energy efficiency say. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a key challenge in Wisconsin is reduced funding for Focus on Energy, after a bill that cut funding by $7.2 million.
Compared with four nearby states, Wisconsin is investing less than half as much in energy efficiency, said Seth Nowak of ACEEE. "In this context, it is crucial that money already collected by utilities on customer bills and by electric co-ops intended for Focus be used for their intended purposes, primarily energy efficiency programs," he said.
The Focus on Energy and other fees collected on utility customers' bills have been used to fund non-energy activities in the past — moves that prompted the Legislature to pass a bill banning budgetary transfers from Focus on Energy fees.
Past transfers include funding that went into the state’s general fund, funded the state W-2 “welfare-to-work” program, and helped pay salaries for district attorneys around the state:
From 2002 to 2007, during the administrations of Republican Gov. Scott McCallum and Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, funds collected for energy efficiency programs were used for municipal aid payments, the general fund and the Wisconsin Works, or W-2 program. Total amount transferred: $110.9 million.
After the Legislature stopped that practices, from 2007 to 2011 the state transferred funds from a weatherization and energy efficiency program for low-income residents to the W-2 program. Total amount transferred: $36.7 million.
When the Legislature stopped that transfer, it then enacted a special charge on utility bills that collected revenue to pay for the salaries and benefits of prosecutors in district attorney's offices across Wisconsin. Total amount transferred: $18.3 million.
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