By Scott Smith
---- — Every time a utility company wants to build a new power plant, the cry goes up from consumer advocates.
If you want to make the ratepayers pay for yet another power plant, they say, force the utility to accept energy efficiency programs as a condition.
The idea is simple. Create real energy savings, and you won’t need any more new power plants in the future. Ratepayers will save money on bills, and they won’t see their bills rise down the road, when the next $3.5 billion Edwardsport plant is floated to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
There’s just one problem, according to Kerwin Olson of the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, and that’s the utilities themselves.
When energy demand wanes, the utilities see their sales drop. That’s not good for business.
Enter State Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo, who managed to amend a bill last week in a way which would kill the state’s fledgling energy efficiency program, a program put together and implemented by Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration.
VanNatter simply doesn’t believe claims that the program saves consumers $2 for every dollar it costs. He doesn’t believe that the program will curtail the need for additional power plants in the future. He says consumers are paying millions so that non-profit groups can get paid for referring people to the program.
All of those assertions — coupled with the shock passage of VanNatter’s amendment — have left CAC officials like Olson, who spent five years lobbying state regulators and the Daniels administration to implement the program, aghast and outraged.
“If you want to change the program, study it and make recommendations. Send it to committee, and take public comment. You don’t offer it as a second reading amendment, with no dialogue, no committee vote. It’s just astounding,” Olson said.
Most people are familiar with the program as the deal where the power company sends someone to audit your home, who gives you light bulbs, power strips and shower heads, and offers you ways to further reduce your energy consumption.
It’s called Demand Side Management, and it has really only been in effect since January 2012. That was probably two years too long for VanNatter, who has become a vocal cheerleader for Indiana’s coal industry during his time in the Legislature.
“The whole point was saving 2 percent on our energy consumption by 2019, but we’re going to have to build another power plant anyway by then,” VanNatter said. “The total cost of the program over 10 years is supposed to be $2 billion. We could build another power plant for that.”
One might say that Olson virulently disagrees with VanNatter on that crucial point, and thinks we can avoid building another plant if we let the demand side program work.
Olson offers analysis from the consultants — people hired by the utilities to audit the programs — to back his assertion the program will save consumers money. VanNatter says he’s heard from people who had home audits, and who don’t think the program will save them any money.
VanNatter said he felt the changes initially proposed to the program, which would have allowed some energy-efficient large companies a break from some of the requirements, were unfair to residential ratepayers.
But those changes weren’t expected to blunt the program’s energy efficiency gains. VanNatter’s amendment would kill the program dead.
The amended bill, SB 340, is expected to return to the Indiana Senate this week.