Wednesday, April 01, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Utilities don’t want this bill

Given the chance, would you elect to protect your pocketbook and also the planet and the grandchildren who will inhabit it? That is barely an oversimplification of the issue before the state House of Representatives when it takes up HB 1903, first in a committee this morning.

The legislature, by either deed or inaction, is almost certain to reject the choice. The big utilities fear that the bill and the energy conservation it is supposed to promote might someday encroach on their profits. Not in nearly a century has the Arkansas legislature refused the bidding of the major gas and electric companies, and this one shows no signs of breaking the string.

HB 1903 came out of the Governor’s Commission on Global Warming, which devised a few ways that the state of Arkansas might do its small part in stopping the slide to global catastrophe. One was to block the construction of a big coal-burning power plant at McNab near the Texas border, which will annually produce some 6 million tons of earth-heating greenhouse gases.The plant isn’t needed to meet the power needs of Texas and Louisiana, which would get the lion’s share of the electricity the plant will produce, or of Arkansas. The Annual Energy Outlook report issued yesterday by the federal Energy Information Administration confirmed it. Only two new coal plants will be needed in all the United States between 2013 and 2025, it said, and even that does not account for expected new investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. Those will obviate the need for any new plants.

But that seems to be water under the bridge. The state Public Service Commission and the state Department of Pollution Control and Ecology have signed off on building the plant, and the utilities are rushing pell-mell to build it and get it on line before appeals have been settled and before the federal government issues new standards for carbon-dioxide poisoning, as the U.S. Supreme Court said the Clean Air Act obliges it to do.

But HB 1903 might still enable Arkansas to make a contribution to the rising battle against climate change. It is patterned after energy-efficiency programs in a number of states and primarily California, which plunged into the conservation effort 30 years ago after the great Arab oil shock nearly brought the country to its knees. The state created a variety of incentives for utilities, businesses and individuals to curtail the use of electricity and natural gas — everything from insulation and efficient appliances and machinery to reports to customers on their monthly bills about how they stack up against their neighbors on energy consumption.

Did it work? Californians now burn only a little more than half the kilowatt hours of power that the average American — and Arkansan — uses each year. One study concluded that a California family is saving $800 a year on energy costs that it would have been paying if the conservation program had never been started.

And the climate? California has slashed its carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent since 1975 though a considerable part of it has been the state’s rigorous standards for automobile tailpipe emissions. California wanted to do even more this decade, but the Bush administration forbade it. President Obama last month instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to revisit that policy.

HB 1903 asks the electric and gas utilities to devise energy-conservation plans and submit them to the Public Service Commission. The goal would be to reduce the consumption of kilowatt hours by 1 percent by 2013 and reduce gas consumption by three-quarters of 1 percent. That is all, and it is only a goal — not a mandate. The companies would only be supposed to do their best. But it is too much for the big utilities, which seem to have locked up enough votes in the House to stop the bill.

It should not be financially harmful to the companies either. They could capitalize their investment in energy-saving work like insulation and appliances and earn a return on it.

The lawmakers and the utility executives might get an idea of the potential of conservation if they held off and went next week to hear James Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, at the Clinton School of Public Service. Duke Energy has made some tentative investments in conservation, including a program called Save a Watt, where the company helps people pay for energy-efficient appliances and other conservation steps.

The Insurance and Commerce Committee of the House, where good consumer bills go to die, is to take up HB 1903 this morning. The word is that consumers have only a fighting chance.