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Clean energy advocates hopeful about changing of guard at Wisconsin PSC

PHOTO BY Richard Hurd / Flickr / Creative Commons

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A recently appointed Public Service Commission chair faces a confirmation hearing Tuesday in the state Senate.

Wisconsin clean energy advocates are hopeful that the state’s Public Service Commission — widely considered too tight with utility interests and even hostile to the spread of distributed solar — may be poised to take a more proactive role in the state’s shift to cleaner energy.

Newly elected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers appointed Rebecca Cameron Valcq in December to chair the three-member commission, which oversees the state’s regulated utilities. A confirmation hearing in the state Senate was scheduled for March 12.

Valcq spent much of her career representing Milwaukee-area utility We Energies as both in-house counsel and with the private law firm Quarles & Brady. That raised some eyebrows when Evers appointed her to replace Rich Zipperer, a Republican commissioner appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker. (Zipperer left the seat after nine months to become chief of staff to a Republican congressman.)

But Valcq’s actions and statements as part of the commission thus far have led some clean energy advocates to say they think the body may become more conducive to clean energy. Their biggest concern may be that because of her past with We Energies, Valcq could have to recuse herself from a substantial number of proceedings, leaving decisions to Walker appointees Ellen Nowak and Mike Huebsch.

Walker originally appointed Nowak chair of the three-member commission in 2011. He moved her to the Department of Administration as secretary in March 2018, but then reappointed her to the commission shortly before leaving office, with her filling the seat of retiring Commissioner Lon Roberts. She now is being considered for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which would mean Evers could pick her replacement. Huebsch’s term is up in 2021.

Many feel Nowak has been too sympathetic to the interests of utility companies, especially We Energies, which is often in conflict with solar advocates and developers.

Nowak drew particular controversy in 2014 when she appeared on a panel with the We Energies CEO and was accused of having unlawful ex parte communications — or talking outside of public proceedings — with the company, as We Energies was proposing a rate case seen as very unfavorable to distributed solar development.

The commission approved most of We Energies’ requests in that case, despite massive public outcry and what critics called a lack of supporting evidence.

Nowak did not come from an energy background, having worked for Waukesha County and the state Legislature as well as serving as deputy director of School Choice Wisconsin.

In response to a question about the controversy, commission spokesman Matt Dannenberg said, “Commissioners take an oath to serve the public and ensure the Commission’s decisions are in the public interest. All of the Wisconsin Commissioners take this oath very seriously. Commissioners must weigh all of the evidence in the case based on what is in the record to make a decision in the public interest, not based on personal policy views.”

Regarding advocates’ hopes that Valcq will shepherd more clean energy development, he added: “Chairperson Valcq believes that the transition to a clean energy economy is occurring due to a convergence of market factors that are driving down the costs of renewable energy in concert with Wisconsin citizens’ demand for a cleaner environment.  It is the role of the Commission to ensure this transition occurs in a responsible way.”

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