Deputy Energy Secretary Elizabeth Moler took the Clinton administration advocacy for competition in the electrical industry into the region of America’s lowest power rates Monday, disputing concerns it will force the Northwest’s bills higher.
“I am abundantly confident that a properly restructured industry will deliver electricity as reliably, and at a lower cost, than our regulated retail monopoly,” Moler said. “The question for us is not whether we should have competition, but how.”
Moler was the lead speaker at The Power Summit, a daylong conference of industry experts and regional leaders on power deregulation.
Critics warned earlier that the summit, organized by Republican Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, appeared little more than a rally for deregulation. Many Idahoans, starting with Gov. Phil Batt, are questioning the value of competition when the state already has the lowest electric rates in the nation.
And Idaho Public Utilities Commissioner Marsha Smith was one of the few to seriously question deregulation during the summit.
She called Idahoans fiercely independent defenders of the free market, suggesting that should translate into support for competition for electricity.
But Smith, reflecting what she said was the view of those she called Idaho consumers, stressed although the state has very low power rates, “we think we still pay plenty and we’re not interested in having our prices increased for choice.
“We would just as soon pay our current rates than pay more to have the choice of providers,” she said.
Congressman Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, emphasized only the generation costs are the target of the restructuring campaign, and that transmission and distribution of power would remain regulated.
He and others suggested that would assure reliability of the system and continued universal service to rural and low-income people.
There was little discussion of the governor’s primary concern - the impact of deregulation on water rights and usage throughout the Northwest where hydropower is the primary source of electricity.
During a midday break, consumer activists, who were asked but declined to participate in the summit, again questioned the need for any dramatic change in the way power is provided in Idaho.
“I haven’t asked for electrical deregulation, and I don’t know anyone who’s asked for it,” said Susan Duncan of the Idaho Rural Council. “With electricity in Idaho costing 3 cents per kilowatt hour, which is a lot less than anywhere else in the country, it would be pretty ridiculous for any of us to be calling for a change.”
The council and other groups also questioned the influence power companies and others with vested interests in deregulation have in the summit.
According to figures compiled by United Vision for Idaho, in the last campaign the power industry contributed more than $11 million to members of Congress, who will decide if the federal government mandates deregulation among all the states.
Craig received more than $47,000 in his 1996 re-election from the industry, but remained adamant that he has made no decision on deregulation. If pushed, he said he would side with leaving the states to decide.
Steven Kean, senior vice president for the Enron power marketer, discounted contentions that consumers in the Northwest opposed deregulation.
He said a recent public opinion survey of the region, particularly in Washington state, showed 75 percent believed competition was good and 59 percent thought their already low power rates would decline further.
“It’s really no longer a question if there’s going to be competition,” Kean said. “It’s a question of how and when. The debate is really over.”
Smith pointed out Kean’s results were drastically different from a recent survey of Idaho consumers.
That poll provided to the governor’s special task force on deregulation, headed by former Idaho Sen. James McClure, showed only 29 percent favored deregulation, while 35 percent opposed it and 35 percent had no opinion.
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