Speakers thanked MGE for putting off rate changes that had been proposed for 2016.
Under MGE's proposal, which would go into effect in 2015, the fixed charge for connecting to the power grid would increase from about $10 to $19 a month, while the energy usage rates would drop from 14.4 cents to 13.3 cents per kilowatt hour.
Michael Vickerman, the program and policy director for RENEW Wisconsin, a statewide group that advocates for renewable energy, said the proposed rates would result in cost increases on an unprecedented scale, putting Madison's electricity rates among the highest in the region. "What they're proposing is practically double what is the norm in the upper Midwest," he said.
The speakers at the forum acknowledged the difficulty utilities face in adapting to renewable energy options and thanked the MGE representatives present for putting off rate changes that had been proposed for 2016. But they asked for more improvement.
"If MGE's rate changes go through, the results could have ramifications across the entire nation. This sets a very bad precedent," said Michael Noble, the executive director of Fresh Energy, a nationwide renewable energy coalition.
Vickerman said the proposed changes would also have an impact on solar installation in Wisconsin, which is already falling behind the rest of the nation. Feelings of insecurity from the current rate debate may have had a hand in that drop, he argued. "It is the lowering of the [energy] rate that is the most unsettling for the solar industry," he said. Property owners might be less inclined to invest in solar, since such investments usually take several years to be paid back.
Utilities are facing a problem that has never been encountered before, Noble said.
Noble said the price of solar power has fallen 90% in 25 years. As the costs of alternative energy options go down, utilities must find new ways to support their own infrastructures.
"We are on the verge of a great and dramatic transformation in our electricity system," Noble said. "It is driven by innovation and technology, but also by the cold, hard realities of the climate problem."
"It's not an environmental issue," he added. "It's a human issue."
Citizens can submit comments on MGE's rate changes through October 8 to the Public Service Commission, which must approve the rate changes before they go into effect. The commission will hold a public hearing on October 9 before announcing a final decision in December.