Energy Efficiency One Way or Another

Wanted: new rules to ensure funding is available year-round for consumers seeking to lower their electricity use

Efficiency Texas, a project of Austin-based energy consulting and lobbying firm Good Company Associates, which is made up of both utility customers and private companies, filed a petition with the Public Utility Commission of Texas on Sept. 27, asking for new rules to ensure that funding is available year-round for consumers seeking to lower their electricity use.

A 1999 Texas law requires investor-owned electric utilities to offer cost-effective energy efficiency programs to meet at least 10% of their annual electric load growth. ET Director Mark Stover says utilities aren't exceeding this mandate because there's no financial incentive, even though experts always list efficiency as the best way to offset new power plants (such as Texas' 19 proposed coal burners). Based on a recent study, Stover believes there's double or triple the demand for efficiency programs compared to what's now being done – programs such as helping customers install insulation, replace an outdated air conditioner, or turn in an old, energy-hog refrigerator. The proposed rules would allow utilities to pass the costs of boosted efficiency spending through to customers' bills. Stover noted that the tens of billions utilities are spending statewide to build coal plants will end up in their customers' bills too and said efforts to reduce electricity use usually have a 3-to-1 return on investment. According to ET, California spends 10 times as much as Texas on energy efficiency and has held its electricity load growth essentially flat since the mid-1970s – while Texas continues to lead the nation in electricity consumption and load growth. "Efficiency is the cheapest, cleanest, and quickest way to get new electric capacity," Stover said.

Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of the Texas Ratepayers' Organization to Save Energy, said the filing appears to be a "one way deal to generate more revenue for energy services companies, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, I just don't know where it's going." Biedrzycki expressed skepticism about the petition's success given that industrial energy customers always oppose measures that signal rate increases. She favors a bigger state mandated goal. "Texas should be able to exceed its efficiency goal with its eyes closed," she said. "If utilities pursued efficiency diligently, their costs would be recovered."

The filing seemed to be more concerned with letting companies determine their surcharge for efficiency without having to go to the Public Utility Commission, said Biedrzycki, but "we need more information and scrutiny up front." She also noted that many of the policies the petition is complaining about are there because Good Company, in its lobbying capacity, asked for them years ago.

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