Posts tagged: Idaho Energy Plan
The Idaho AARP now says it'll push for establishing a new state consumer utility advocate during the legislative session that starts in January, after the idea was passed over in revisions to the Idaho Energy Plan recently approved by a joint legislative committee. “It's clear whose voice was heard and whose wasn't,” said Jim Wordelman, state director for AARP in Idaho. “Idaho utility companies were really the only ones opposed to creating a stronger voice and presence for consumers by establishing an office to advocate on their behalf.” The senior citizens group wants a consumer advocate office to advocate for consumers in rate cases before the Public Utilities Commission and the courts; Idaho is the only western state that doesn't have one.
A motion in the Energy, Environment and Technology Interim Committee to explore the concept as part of the state's energy plan revisions failed on an 8-4 vote. “We are disappointed to say the least,” Wordelman said, who noted that numerous AARP members submitted comments to the panel supporting the idea. “AARP will revisit the creation of the consumer advocate office in the upcoming legislative session. We only hope the legislature will be more responsive to the needs of Idaho's residential consumers and small businesses.”
A panel of Idaho lawmakers approved big changes to the state's 2007 Idaho Energy Plan in a series of close votes last week, but critics say nearly all of them will weaken the plan by loosening its requirements. Gone from the plan: Support for local-option taxes for transit; encouraging regional land-use planning designed to reduce trips; support for higher fuel efficiency in vehicles; and support for tax incentives for energy efficient technologies. Rejected: Calls to establish a consumer utility advocate's office in Idaho and to offer new help to low-income ratepayers.
“It seemed like the utilities were definitely writing the agenda,” said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who serves on the joint legislative panel. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, the panel's co-chairman, said, “It was a pretty intense exercise, but I think it was worthwhile, it was beneficial.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com; the plan revisions, once finalized, go to the full Legislature for approval in January.
The Idaho Legislature's Interim Committee on Energy, Environment & Technology wrapped up two days of meetings today on updates to the 2007 Idaho Energy Plan today, and decided to extend the public comment period to Nov. 18. The joint committee will meet again Nov. 21-22 in Boise. It's wrestling with negative reactions from an array of parties to changes in the plan proposed by the board of the Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance, from reducing energy efficiency and conservation from the “highest priority” to just “a priority,” to taking out support for local-option taxes for transit. Numerous task forces of the alliance board developed a draft that had more widespread support before their board made the final changes.
Comments can be sent by email to mnugent@Lso.idaho.gov, or mailed to the Energy, Environment & Technology Interim Committee, Legislative Services Office, Statehouse, Boise, 83720-0054. There's more info here.
A big topic of debate at today's Idaho energy plan hearing was the lack of a consumer advocate in Idaho's utility rate-setting process, a distinction Idaho shares with just a handful of other states. According to a 2004 study by the National Regulatory Research Institute at Ohio State University, 43 states and the District of Columbia at that time had an independent agency that acts as a consumer advocate, including three that had created nonprofit public corporations to serve as utility consumer advocates. The Idaho AARP reports that today, since the defunding of Georgia's office, Idaho is one of eight states with no independent utility consumer advocate, and the only one in the west.
Charlie Acquard, executive director of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, said most are funded by assessments on utilities and the agencies vary in size. “They generally work,” he said. “Even a small staff is better than no staff, because it keeps 'em honest.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, proposed legislation in 2001 and 2002 to establish a consumer advocate in Idaho's utility regulation process, but it was opposed both by Idaho's big utilities and the PUC, and didn't pass. However, Keough said she's been hearing increased interest in the idea from other lawmakers in the past two years. “I think it's certainly an idea that needs to be on the table,” Keough said.
Acquard said nationwide, utilities recognize that involving a consumer advocate in the process beats “at the end of the process, if you have some consumer group screaming about a rate increase.” He said, “We may be pains in the butt, but smart utilities realize we bring a sense of reality to the process.”
Some lawmakers on the Legislature's Interim Committee on Energy, Environment & Technology were cool to the idea today, however. Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, asked if the provision of up to $40,000 to fund intervenors' costs in rate cases covers that issue. Lynn Young, a volunteer board member with AARP, responded with an example: A case in which an individual consumer decided to intervene, hired a lawyer and incurred thousands of dollars in legal fees – and then wasn't deemed to have provided different enough arguments to warrant getting any of the intervenor funds, which are available to various parties, from irrigators to community action agencies. “So that provision has a very dampening effect on any residential customers who want to come before the PUC,” Young said.
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said, “In some cases I think there is an advocacy agency already, and it's called the Legislature and it's called the elected officials in the state.” But Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said as a legislator, he doesn't feel qualified to intervene in a PUC case on behalf of consumers. The PUC holds quasi-judicial hearings on proposed utility rate increases. Parties that intervene in the process can participate in that hearing, cross-examining witnesses and presenting evidence for their side. But it's a complicated and somewhat obscure process.
Young said some argue that the PUC staff already advocates for consumers, but she said that's not their role. “They balance the needs of utilities and customers and other groups,” she said.
David Irwin, AARP spokesman, said, “Our argument is, look, the utility companies and several other groups are very well represented in utility rate cases. The group that is continually left out of that largely is the largest group of ratepayers in the state, and that is the consumers.”
Anderson asked why AARP doesn't fulfill that role itself; Young said the group does advocate for seniors, but that for rate case intervention, “I think having a group that is dedicated to doing that, trained, have the knowledge and experience, is a far better solution for a large group of customers that have not been adequately represented in the utility arena.”
In addition to advocating for consumers in rate cases, most state consumer utility advocates have the authority to appeal PUC decisions. Washington's falls under its state attorney general's office.
The Ohio State University study concluded, “The independent consumer advocates established by state statutes have a distinct function among consumer representatives. They have the funding and expertise that many private consumer interest groups lack.”
Testimony at today's hearing on proposed revisions to the 2007 Idaho Energy Plan has included pleas to keep in the plan numerous items that the Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance board, a group appointed by Gov. Butch Otter, has proposed taking out. Among them: Backing incentives for people to use more fuel-efficient vehicles, including natural gas-powered and flex-fuel vehicles; support for local-option taxes as an option for communities that want to fund public transit; “decoupling” rate-setting from sales, as is already under way in a pilot project between the Idaho PUC and Idaho Power Co., to remove disincentives for utilities to implement energy efficiency programs; backing frequent updates to building codes for energy efficiency; and making energy efficiency and conservation the “highest” priority in the plan; the board recommends downgrading that to just “a priority.”
“Offering incentive packages is a sensible way to drive the market toward meeting energy-efficiency goals,” Heather Wheeler, executive director of the Community Transportation Association of Idaho, told the Legislature's Interim Committee on Energy, Environment & Technology. She also noted the removal of local-option taxes from the plan and said some Idaho resort communities already have made good use of local-option sales taxes for transit projects; Sen. Curtis McKenzie, co-chairman of the joint committee, said he thought the panel should discuss that. “I put that in my notes, to do that,” he told Wheeler.
Ben Otto of the Idaho Conservation League said Idaho's “decoupling” pilot project is in its fifth year and a decision is scheduled by the PUC this spring on whether to make it permanent. “It is an option that should be on the table for them to consider, and this plan should reflect that,” he said.
Testimony continues at 1:30 this afternoon after a lunch break; you can watch live here.
The Legislature's Energy, Environment & Technology Interim Committee has opened its hearing this morning on proposed revisions to the 2007 Idaho Energy Plan. First up to testify was Annie Black, a Boise resident and former manager of the green power program at Idaho Power Co., who said Idaho's current PUC policies require utilities to sell their Renewable Energy Credits, or “green tags,” when they purchase or generate renewable power from sources like wind or geothermal. Those RECs are generally sold out of state, allowing customers there to claim the environmental benefits of that renewable power production.
“Yes, we are generating that wind in Idaho … but we're not delivering that same wind profile” to power customers in Idaho, Black said. “Credits are very desirable if you live in California and have renewable portfolio standards,” she said. “The commission has said that the renewable energy credit is not something that customers need and want. … I know there are a lot of customers that do want to be able to count some small component of what comes to their home.”
One of the three “pillars” cited in the proposed revisions to the energy plan is to enhance Idaho's collective “energy IQ,” Black said. In line with that, she said, Idahoans should be fully informed that the environmental benefits from renewable power generated in Idaho aren't actually coming to their homes; they're being sold elsewhere.
Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Curtis McKenzie said that may just confuse consumers. Under the current system, he said, “It's keeping my costs down as a ratepayer and encouraging the production of renewable energy … in the state.” Black said, however, that since the environmental benefits are sold elsewhere, consumers are being misled when they see charts showing how much renewable power is generated in the state and assume they benefit from that. “It could be the right thing for the ratepayer and the state, what we're doing,” she said, “but don't assume that the wind energy that comes to your door comes with the right to pat yourself on the back, that you're somehow … polluting less,” when that environmental benefit is actually being sold to offset higher-polluting power production elsewhere.
As Idaho lawmakers work on the first major update to their groundbreaking 2007 state energy plan, draft recommendations would have them back off from pushing incentives for renewable energy development and drop energy efficiency and conservation from the “highest priority” to just a priority. Others are pushing lawmakers to increase the push for solar energy development and power from woody biomass in Idaho, to find new ways to help low-income people afford power, and to end Idaho's distinction as the only western state without a consumer advocate in its utility rate-setting process at the state Public Utilities Commission. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com; a joint legislative committee will hold public hearings this Wednesday and Thursday and is accepting public comments on the plan revisions through Friday.
Idaho lawmakers are inviting public comments on proposed updates to the 2007 Idaho Energy Plan, which is undergoing a five-year review; a public hearing will be held at 10 a.m. on Nov. 2 in the Capitol Auditorium. In addition, the co-chairs of the Energy, Environment and Technology Interim Committee, Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, are accepting public comments through 5 p.m. on Friday Nov. 4. The Strategic Energy Alliance has submitted recommended updates to the energy plan; its recommendations, plus various comments on them, can be viewed on the committee's website here (scroll down to the bottom of the page). To submit comments by email, send them to Mike Nugent at firstname.lastname@example.org.