Interview with PSC Highlights Regional & Federal Regulation

In an interview with The Wheeler Report, Phil Montgomery, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin discussed the challenges of the agency and the agencies move to more regional work.

What are the recent accomplishments of your agency?
When Governor Walker appointed me in March 2011, I wanted to make sure we providing the best customer service possible. The PSC worked with our customers to make sure we were getting them the information and service they needed in a timely and efficient manner. We have delivered results on time in the past two years. Cases are delivered on time, and we do the best to protect rate payers during the process. Last year $298 million in rate increases were proposed. We decreased those rate increases by $126.1 million (42%). Increases were requested by the large investment owned utilities.

Last year the legislature passed reforms for the PSC. We now have timelines on certificate of authority for construction projects. The bill made ethic reforms on commissioners. It changed the lobbying rules affecting commissioners and the PSC.. We now have clear rules and guidelines that govern the commission. Those regulations were called the PSC Reform Act – 2011 ACT 155.

What are some of the challenges facing your agency?
The biggest issue we face is the federal government and their unpredictability. Some of the issues include the unprecedented changes and regulations by the EPA. As we examine requests by utilities, we try to determine what is next from the federal government. We need to advise utilities and what they need to prepare for. How will those changes affect the rate payers? My hope is that the EPA will work towards a partnership with the state. In Wisconsin, 63% of our power comes from coal. As the federal government, and the EPA, do more that drives up the cost of the power we continue to see the effects on the rate payer.

Do you have any new programs and major issues coming in the next couple of years?
The biggest change for us has been our increasing involvement in regional transmission and energy issues. Last year we began assigning staff members to take leadership roles on the organization MISO (Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator). We have staff members in leadership positions there. We have increased our engagement on regional boards and commercial participation related to energy markets between regional transmission issues. We will have more there in the years to come. MISO is FERC regulated, and oversees the reliability of large areas to prevent blackouts. The headquarters for MISO are in Indiana and Minnesota. It stretches from Manitoba to Missouri, Michigan to Montana. It includes all the states in between. We rely on the Midwest and MISO for reliability and marketing of electricity.

How will Wisconsin’s power portfolio change with the closing of the nuclear plant? Increases in wind power? What are the current splits in power?
I think that is where the education comes into play. Ten years ago we had electricity that was centered locally. One company generated and transmitted electricity through their service territory and distributed to the individual customers. All three were done by one company for one area. Now everything is through MISO which has the responsibility on a daily basis to ensure there is enough capacity to meet the needs of the entire region. About 21% percent of our total power is from two nuclear sites, after Kewaunee it will decrease by a few points. It will likely be replaced with natural gas. We have the capacity to use natural gas more extensively. With natural gas costs so low more and more companies are moving in that direction.

Statewide broadband proposal in the budget – what does it entail? How will the PSC move forward with this project if it is approved?
The broadband proposal is a $4.7 million initiative to get broadband in the rural parts of the state. Broadband is a critical economic development tool. The idea is to provide grants to entities to expand their capacity in underserved areas. DOA will write rules with the PSC on how to write the grants. It will start by defining an underserved area. The PSC has a statewide broadband office. We will be discussing these issues at the broadband symposium. (Symposium Information)

What is the telemedicine program?
Telemedicine grants are grants provided for clinics and hospitals to purchase equipment for telemedicine services. Those services include remote consultation, in-home monitoring, doctor assisting in a procedure long, etc. State Universal Service Fund dollars fund this program. Wisconsin provides $500,000 per year for telemedicine grants. I think the PSC does a good job ensuring these grants go to high need projects and are equally dispersed throughout the state.

How many different utilities do you have to regulate?
We regulate a dozen electric investor owned utilities, 82 municipal owned, 583 water utilities, and 13 combined sewer and water utilities. Utilities are required to come to the PSC for rate adjustments, construction projects, or major decisions. The PSC takes up a wide variety of challenging issues.

Final Thoughts
Wisconsin led the nation in creating the PSC. I know that myself and my fellow commissioners take our role very seriously. We ensure that we look at everything that comes before us in a very judicious manner.