By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans on the Legislature’s powerful budget committee approved a bill Wednesday that would relax portions of Wisconsin’s sulfur dioxide regulations and rework utilities’ obligations to pay into the state’s renewable energy program.
The bill would eliminate requirements that major utilities submit annual plans for complying with sulfur dioxide emission requirements to the Department of Natural Resources and the Public Service Commission. It also would eliminate a requirement that if the DNR believes emissions will exceed 325,000 tons annually the agency must recommend to lawmakers whether the state should adopt an enforceable limit.
The measure also re-shapes how much money utilities must pay into Focus on Energy, the state’s renewable energy program. Currently, investor-owned utilities must pay 1.2 percent of their operating revenues into the program annually. Retail energy companies that participate in the program pay $8 per customer meter. Under the bill, utilities would pay 1.2 percent of their retail sales only, a change that would cost the program $7 million annually.
The bill’s author, Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, a New Berlin Republican, said in written remarks to the Assembly energy committee last week that the bill will help utilities operate more efficiently.
Sulfur dioxide is a gas generated by the combustion of fossil fuels and industrial processes and can cause respiratory problems. The sulfur dioxide changes in the bill generated little discussion among Joint Finance Committee members during a hearing Wednesday, though. According to a memo from David Siebert, director of the DNR’s Bureau of Environmental Analysis and Sustainability, federal regulations have largely superseded Wisconsin’s regulations and state utilities’ emissions don’t approach those limits.
The Focus on Energy changes generated more heat. Bill Skewes, executive director of the Wisconsin Utility Association, told the committee the bill would ensure the same amount of energy isn’t assessed twice, once at the wholesale level and again at the retail level, saving customers money since utilities recoup their pay-ins through their rates.
Rep. Chris Taylor, a Madison Democrat, said she couldn’t understand why legislators would want to cut a successful program that has helped keep customer rates down by staving off construction of new power plants.
“It’s not a good thing for public health. It’s not a good thing for environmental health,” Taylor said. “I don’t know why we want to cut this.”
The committee ultimately passed the bill on a 12-3 vote, with all three Democrats on the panel voting against it.
The vote clears the way for full votes in the state Senate and Assembly.
Alliant Energy, Madison Gas and Electric Co. and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a staunch Republican ally, all have registered in support of the bill. Clean Wisconsin, an environmental group, has registered against it.