Sunday, December 13, 2015

Warm winter, Walker PSC appointees may bring a chill for Wisconsinites

As the Packers prepare to play in what will almost certainly be the warmest December game in Lambeau Field history today (temps expected around 55 with major rain, previous record was 45), and little to no snow expected in any of the state for the next week, it's time to start thinking about what this warm Winter may do to Wisconsin's economy if the predicted El Nino continues to moderate our usually harsh winters.

Rob Schultz of the Wisconsin State Journal had the same idea in mind, and has a feature out today discussing the tourist-based industries that may be taking a hit in South Central Wisconsin (and a handful that may be helped) as the grass stays green and the temps stay above freezing 12 days before Christmas.
After one of the warmest Novembers on record, temperatures in Madison have averaged 11.6 degrees warmer than normal through the first 10 days of December, according to the National Weather Service. That has lent credence to weather experts’ predictions that this El Niño could rival the strong one that occurred in 1997-98 that led to such a mild winter in Madison that mosquitoes were biting in January, tulips were pushing through the soil in early February and nobody was ice fishing and ice skating on area lakes or ponds.

That is good news for the nearly dozen golf courses in the area that are earning some extra revenue by staying open, or re-opening this month. Pleasant View in Middleton had more than 170 golfers show up to play Dec. 5 and the Oaks near Cottage Grove had more than 100. “I never could have predicted that we’d be that busy,” said Pleasant View general manager Jeremy Cabalka.

But it’s bad news for the ski hills, most of which are closed in Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. Midwest ski resorts lost a combined $120 million during the 1997-’98 El Niño, according to a 2000 report by the Illinois State Water Survey. The report said total estimated losses by the ski, ice fishing, snowmobile and other winter-related industries in the Midwest was around $750 million.

“I remember that winter was rough,” recalled Joe Vittengl, general manager at Devil’s Head Resort in Merrimac for the past 26 years. “We opened Dec. 20 that year. That was the latest we ever opened, and we closed sometime in February.”
On the flip side, the article notes that some of the ski hills could benefit if there are a handful of cold nights to allow snow to be made, but few bitter cold days that keep people from outdoor activities. But there should be definite concern at this point, and it may hold down some of the seasonal hires that we would see at cold-weather based tourism jobs, as well as revenues from bars and taverns up North that rely on snowmobiling and other winter-related recreation.

One positive that would usually happen with these warmer temperatures is that Wisconsin consumers would see some relief with smaller heating bills. However, average Wisconsinites might not be as much of a price break as they'd ordinarily see, because of a strategy put together with the approval of the Public Service Commission Board, which has had all 3 of its members appointed by Governor Scott Walker. An example of which came with last week's PSC Board approval of XCel Energy's rate plans.
The three-member Wisconsin Public Service Commission unanimously approved a 75 percent increase to fixed fees for residential, farm, and small commercial customers, who will now pay $14 a month simply to maintain an account.

The ruling will raise the average monthly household electric bill by less than $1 but will fundamentally change the way costs are allocated for the Minnesota-based utility's 255,000 Wisconsin customers....

Under the approved rate plan, the average Wisconsin household - using about 750 kilowatt hours per month - will pay about 75 cents each month for electricity, an increase of less than 1 percent. Heavier users could see their bills shrink.

But, according to {La Crosse] Tribune calculations, customers using only 200 kwh per month will pay about 14 percent more - or an extra $4.60 per month.
And a warmer winter would make more people likely to become low-usage customers, making them subject to paying more under the "higher fee, lower per-use" structure put in by XCel and many other energy companies around Wisconsin, and signed off on by Walker's appointees to the PSC.

It's almost like the energy folks and the Walker Administration saw this warm winter coming, and worked together to lock in higher profits with this new scheme. Just like I'm sure it was total coincidence when earlier this year, Walker moved DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch from the Department of Administration to the PSC Board, and replaced him with former Madison Gas and Electric exec Scott Neitzel. Amazing how these things work out, don't they?

So while the warm winter is a nice thing for those of us who don't like freezing our backsides off and shoveling snow all the time (albeit a bit disconcerting for the Holiday season), it also might be something that does added damage to the Wisconsin economy and budget in a time when we really don't need it. And the pro-corporation, anti-homeowner fee structure being signed off on by Scott Walker's appointees to the PSC are going to limit whatever relief should be coming to the pocketbooks of the average Wisconsinite.

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