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River Falls, WI Utility Advisory Board "Boasts Affordable Public Power" while We Energies Pushes for Increased Rates and Costly Gas Plant Investments

As energy costs soar across Wisconsin, a glaring disparity has emerged between communities served by municipal utilities and those reliant on investor-owned utilities like We Energies. The city of River Falls, with its locally member owned public power utility, has successfully maintained stable and affordable rates for residents. In stark contrast, We Energies customers in Milwaukee face an escalating burden of repeated rate hikes, high energy bills, and a utility investing heavily in fossil fuel infrastructure.

Recent data underscores the stark difference in residential electric rates:

- River Falls Municipal Utilities: $101.70 per month for the average customer

- We Energies: $144 per month for the average customer

Even with a potential 5-6% increase, River Falls Municipal Utilities anticipates remaining well below the rates of investor-owned competitors. Meanwhile, We Energies has proposed its third rate hike in just three years, potentially raising residential bills by $10-11 per month in 2025 and another $7-8 in 2026.

This widening gap highlights the advantages of public power, which prioritizes affordability and community control over shareholder profits. As a not-for-profit entity, River Falls Municipal Utilities focuses on providing reliable service at the lowest possible cost to local customers. Decisions are made transparently by elected officials accountable to the community.

We Energies, however, must balance investor interests with those of ratepayers. The utility's guaranteed profit margins and substantial shareholder returns have come at the expense of customer affordability. Despite some investments in renewable energy, We Energies continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels and has aggressively pushed for costly natural gas projects.

The utility recently announced plans to invest $1.2 billion in new gas plants, including converting coal units to gas at its Oak Creek and Weston facilities. These investments could leave ratepayers paying for obsolete infrastructure long before the utility's 2050 net-zero emissions target. Critics argue that investing in gas as a "bridge fuel" is misguided and that resources would be better spent on truly clean, renewable energy and storage.

The impact of these divergent approaches is felt most acutely by low-income households and communities of color. In Milwaukee, the average Black and Latinx families pay over 5% of their income on energy bills, compared to just 2% for white households. High energy burdens force difficult tradeoffs, increase utility debt, and heighten the risk of disconnections]

Addressing energy affordability requires a statewide commitment to equitable solutions. The Public Service Commission must scrutinize utility rate proposals and prioritize affordability. Expanding low-income energy efficiency programs, like the successful efforts in Madison, can reduce waste and lower bills. Percentage of income payment plans can provide stability for struggling households.

Ultimately, the contrast between River Falls and Milwaukee illustrates the potential of public power to center community needs and the consequences of an investor-owned utility doubling down on fossil fuels. As Wisconsin navigates the energy transition, policymakers and regulators must ensure that all residents, regardless of utility provider, can access affordable, reliable, and truly clean power. Keeping affordability at the forefront is essential to building a just and sustainable energy future for the entire state.

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