Electricity Policy

       

Sat10192013

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Are we switching to the ‘soft path’? Not quite yet.

It’s taken a good while for some utilities and policy makers to warm up to the “soft path” – energy efficiency and renewables – as an answer to energy supply. Perhaps the soft path seemed unmanly in an industry that was – but is less and less – dominated by men. But warm to it we have. Three recent stunners:

—The all-Republican Georgia Public Service Commission on Thursday decided by a 3-2 vote to require Georgia Power Co., the largest utility subsidiary of the Southern Company, to acquire more solar generation. The pro-solar position was advanced by an unlikely alliance of environmental interests and the Georgia Tea Party Patriots.

—Also last week, the Mississippi Public Service Commission unanimously adopted a rule requiring all gas and electric companies having over 25,000 customers must offer energy efficiency programs to their customers. Immediate plans could include energy audits, appliance and lighting rebates, weatherization, and paying builders to make new structures more efficient. Within three years, utilities must file more comprehensive plans. Neither Mississippi nor Georgia can be said to have a “nanny state” attitude, nor are they directive with their utilities.

Finally, as our associate Ken Maize wrote in his POWERblog, 2013 saw a widespread attack against state renewable energy mandates but “[a]ll failed entirely.” The highest profile attempt at repeal of a state renewable portfolio standard came in North Carolina, with a Republican legislature and governor. Though encouraged and aided by national conservative groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heartland Institute, sponsors of a rollback measure “failed to get their legislation out of committee in either the state House or the Senate, largely because repeal advocates were unable to win enough GOP backing in either chamber.”

Clearly, we have turned some sort of corner, but it took decades to reach this tipping point.

For decades America had justifiable pride in its “steel in the ground” approach to power supply, as power costs decreased with increasing unit sizes. But those days are long gone. While the National Academy of Engineering quite reasonably called electrification the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave today’s energy infrastructure a D+ grade, saying “America relies on an aging electrical grid.”

Today, facing a multi-trillion dollar tab to modernize the grid, it makes sense that policy makers would turn to cost-effective energy efficiency and to encouraging resource diversity.

Does this mean we are going all out for renewables and energy efficiency? Of course not. The dash for gas continues but it’s also clear, underscored by the states’ recent actions, that these soft path resources are prominent players in any energy policy discussion.

— Robert Marritz 

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