In key states, energy is on the ballot
In the lead-up to Tuesday’s election, all eyes are on the candidates at the top of the ticket. But if you care about energy policy, your focus should be local. Electricity policy in particular remains a highly localized issue, and in key states like Arizona, Louisiana and Georgia, voters have a real say in who calls the shots.
Each state has its own Public Utilities Commission (or Public Service Commission, Corporation Commission, etc.) that decides how utility dollars are spent. Over the next 20 years, PUC commissioners will approve about $2 trillion in power plants, transmission lines and efficiency programs. These commissions are hugely important to the future of energy because the electricity system they choose today will power our homes and businesses for decades.
Ceres recently published a report on how state PUCs can manage costs and risks, so we have a keen interest in the makeup of these Commissions. Why should voters? Well, in 13 states, they get to choose who gets into office. This week, the High Country News highlighted commission races in a number of states where the stakes are particularly high. Here are a few more to watch if you want to cast your vote for a clean energy future.
Arizona has the potential to be the “Persian Gulf” of solar energy, but that hasn’t stopped renewable energy from becoming a political flashpoint in the state’s commission race. Arizona utilities currently must source 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Democrats want to increase that percentage while Republicans, citing cost concerns, do not. A Democratic majority on the Arizona Corporation Commission could also overturn a controversial recent decision to count a high-polluting waste incineration plant toward a utility’s renewable energy requirement. Given recent reports about unpredictable fuel prices and the health impacts of fossil fuel-fired power plants, a limited renewable energy plan could trade short-term savings for increased future risks. It would also be out of step with public opinion; a 2011 poll found that more than 90 percent of Arizonans support increasing the state’s share of renewable energy – and are willing to pay more for it. Voters can help decide which path Arizona chooses.
Louisiana is a state that is no stranger to risk, and in the wake of recent blackouts following Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy, utilities like Entergy are beginning to adapt to climate risks. The PUC also plays an important role in building resiliency. Recently, the Louisiana Public Service Commission expanded its powers over electricity planning, which, wonky as it may sound, could be a big step forward for investing in smart, clean, resilient electric system resources. For example, Louisiana has barely scratched the surface on energy efficiency, which the Commission could push forward. Improved efficiency would be a boon to ratepayers who want to spend less on energy. And, as Ceres’s analysis shows, efficiency is the lowest cost, lowest risk energy resource for utilities and their customers.
Finally, Georgia is another state to watch closely. Two of five commission seats are up for grabs at a time when the state’s electricity bills are rising, partly because the PSC green-lighted the state’s first new nuclear plant in 30 years. That plant has already racked up nearly $1 billion in construction cost overruns, and it’s a familiar story. In the 1980s, the adjacent nuclear plant cost roughly 12 times initial estimates. Ceres’s analysis shows that new nuclear power plants are the riskiest energy resource, which is another way of saying that they’re most likely to cost much more than expected. Nuclear plants also need large amounts of water for cooling, which is a serious concern for a drought-stricken state like Georgia. On a more promising note, the state’s main utility, Georgia Power, recently announced plans to expand its purchases of renewable energy. With all of the important issues facing Georgia’s electricity system, the state’s PSC election should stir up discussion.
State utility regulators rarely make front-page news, but across the nation, voters are facing choice between “the energy sources of the future” and “what’s worked in the past.” If you’re in a state with a publicly-elected PUC, keep that in mind when you head to the polls on Tuesday.
Brian Bowen, Manager, Communications, contributed reporting to this article.