Wisconsin Public Service Commissioner Ellen Nowak attended several private events at the behest of groups funded by the Koch Brothers and utility interests in 2016, according to documents obtained by UtilitySecrets.org. Some of the groups paid for Nowak’s travel, including trade associations whose members are regulated by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. Nowak also allowed a representative of the Edison Electric Institute to help script and organize her panel at a regulators’ conference, the documents show.

Commissioner Nowak was a panelist last October at the State Policy Network’s (SPN) 24th Annual Meeting in Nashville. SPN is a coordinated network of conservative think tanks in nearly every state in the country, funded by the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests. It’s an $83 million empire that drives corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model bills in state capitals by issuing reports and testifying in favor of the legislation; the bills often would roll back environmental protections or weaken renewable energy policies. In 2015, for example, SPN worked to block funding for several state agencies tasked with developing state implementation plans for the Clean Power Plan.

Nowak spoke on the panel titled, “Strange Bedfellows: Understanding the Odd Marriage Between Environmentalists, Utilities, and the Clean Power Plan.” The description of the panel in the event’s agenda read:

Many crony capitalists stand to benefit from the passage of the Clean Power Plan. Some utilities are moving towards compliance even before it’s the law of the land. Understand the odd marriage between environmentalists, utilities, and the Clean Power Plan. Learn how to establish a watchdog network in your state to make sure industry is looking out for the best interest of all ratepayers.

UtilitySecrets.org obtained the documents from a public record request to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.

In an email exchange between SPN’s Jennifer Butler and Nowak, Butler mentioned that utility lawyer Ray Gifford had asked Butler to follow up and send Nowak more details about the panel. Gifford is a former Colorado Public Utilities Commissioner and is now a partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP, where his clients include electric, gas, and coal companies.

Nowak’s panel took place at the same conference where a staffer from the Florida SPN think tank, the James Madison Institute, told attendees how Florida utilities and backers of Amendment 1 successfully misled the public into believing the ballot was pro-solar. In addition, this is the same conference where Edison Electric Institute’s Todd Wynn, director of external affairs, asked for help from SPN think tanks to support fixed charges and changes to net metering policies.

During the Obama administration, Nowak was not shy in expressing her views about the Clean Power Plan. In 2015, she testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. She said the rule will raise electricity costs and threaten the stability of the electric grid. In September 2016, Nowak received the “Innovator Award” from the conservative media outlet Right Wisconsin for her fight against Obama’s CPP.


E-mails show EEI funded Nowak’s travel to a 2016 conference in Miami

Additional emails obtained by UtilitySecrets.org highlight Nowak’s relationship with the Edison Electric Institute and Gee Strategies Group, a consulting organization that works with the trade association. Gee Strategies was listed in a 2012 EEI internal presentation given to utility CEOs regarding the trade association’s plans to influence regulators and consumer advocates.

In October 2016, Robert Gee of Gee Strategies invited Nowak to attend the Energy Policy Leadership Summit held on December 6-7 in Miami. Gee emailed Nowak, “As a seasoned veteran of this executive dialogue, you don’t require any explanation of the value of this type of event. This year, given the impending transition to a new administration, no matter which party prevails, this discussion will assume even greater importance should divided government continue, as predicted.”

Gee carbon copied Sheri Givens on the email and asked Nowak to let either one of them know if she would be accepting the invitation. Givens is a former state utility consumer advocate from Texas and works as a Senior Associate at Gee Strategies. Givens is also president of her own firm, Givens Consulting LLC. (In 2014, according to an EEI meeting agenda, Givens participated in a session to help the trade association and its members with engagement activities. That year she joined EEI to meet with staff members of the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss the impact of rooftop solar panels, and also partnered with EEI to present to the Council of State Governments on the same topic.)

According to the Energy Policy Leadership Summit agenda, Nowak was a moderator for the panel titled, “Pathways to a Smarter Digital and Distributed Grid.” Her colleague on the Wisconsin PSC, Commissioner Mike Huebsch, served as moderator for the panel titled, “The Changed Clean Energy Landscape in 2017.” 

Another email from Robert Gee shows that 12 other utility regulators confirmed their participation for the Miami event and that this conference does not have an audience, but is an “executive dialogue structured to promote discussion between invited participants, including those not speaking on panels.” The agenda listed the invited executives from several investor-owned utility companies, including FirstEnergy, Duke Energy, Entergy, and Xcel Energy.

No representatives from any environmental advocacy or clean energy organizations were listed on the agenda, despite multiple panels which focused on those issues.

Gee’s invitation email also included the fact that all commissioners’ airfare and hotel rooms had been funded by the “generous sponsorship” of EEI, and the Gee Strategies Group agenda that was sent had metadata that showed it originated from EEI’s Alice Travis, ‎director, project services group.

The major investor-owned electric utilities regulated by Nowak and the Wisconsin PSC are all members of EEI, including Alliant, Madison Gas and Electric, We Energies, and Xcel.

The agenda included a welcome dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse, a keynote from EEI’s since-retired Executive Vice President David Owens, a moderated panel conducted by EEI’s current Executive Vice President Phil Moeller, and a panel that included Michael Maslansky, from Maslansky & Partners, who was hired by EEI to help repair the utility industry’s image. Arizona Corporation Commissioner Doug Little moderated that panel.

Earlier in the year, Robert Gee invited Nowak to attend another invitation-only meeting. In March 2016, Gee Strategies invited Nowak to attend the 11th Annual Macquarie Utilities, Power and Energy Infrastructure Dialogue in Vail, Colorado.

Nowak’s panel was titled, “The Regulators Conundrum – Lowest Immediate Cost vs. Industry Sustainability.” Gee thanked Nowak for accepting the invitation and sent details that revealed the conference took place under the Chatham House Rule. Gee also explained that the discussions would be conducted in the mornings to allow attendees to take advantage of the alpine activities in the “beautiful mountain environment” in the afternoons. Attendees for the conference included six other state utility regulators, executives from utility companies, clean energy companies, and energy analysts. Other than Nowak, no utility regulator attended both the Miami and Vail meetings, according to attendee lists that Gee emailed.


EEI scripted a Nowak panel on community solar at NARUC and handpicked panelists

Other emails between Nowak and EEI show that the trade association helped script and choose the panelists for Nowak’s panel at NARUC’s 2016 summer policy conference in Nashville. The panel was “Community Solar – Where Do We Go From Here?” The description read “This panel continues the discussions started at the Winter Committee Meetings on different ownership models, program design, best practices, and lessons learned, including how to tailor programs to include low- and mid-income customers.”

EEI’s Elizabeth Stipnieks, Managing Director for State Regulatory Affairs, sent Nowak a draft abstract for the community solar session, which was nearly identical to the above description that ended up in the NARUC program, though the final abstract cut a few of Stipnieks’ clauses.

Stipnieks also hand-picked most of the panel, and did the outreach to the panelists – all despite the fact that EEI was not a part of the panel and publicly was not recognized as having any role in organizing it. Stipnieks also told Nowak that “we have taken the liberty of identifying some of the issues for the polling questions, and with your approval can assist in developing those questions.”

Stipnieks later emailed Nowak the speaker contact information and directed a NARUC staffer to send each of the speakers (Jennifer Szaro from the Smart Electric Power Alliance, Cindy Crane from Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s Rocky Mountain Power, Lynn Tompson from Eau Claire Energy Cooperative and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and Eran Mahrer from FirstSolar) the invitation letter. A few weeks before the conference, Nowak asked the panelists for sample questions. Stipnieks sent in a long and detailed list.

Posted by Matt Kasper

Matt Kasper is the Deputy Director at the Energy and Policy Institute. He focuses on defending policies that further the development of clean energy sources. He also focuses on the companies and their front groups that obstruct policy solutions to global warming. Before joining the Energy and Policy Institute in 2014, Matt was a research assistant at the Center for American Progress where he worked on various state and local policy issues.