Will Decoupling Derail Efforts to Push Climate Change Legislation?

lightbulbs.jpg Most utility companies are encouraging their customers to conserve energy. But from a business point of view, there’s a down side to energy efficiency: selling less power also means less revenue for the utility companies that provide the power. And the less a utility earns, the less it is likely to invest in new, cleaner forms of energy. So in order to insulate utilities from this outcome and encourage them to invest in cleaner energy, a number of states have enacted policies that effectively “decouple” a utility’s revenue from its profits, while ensuring a flat rate for customers.
Decoupling was introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for gas and electricity, respectively) in California, where it is widely deemed a success. Power consumption in California has remained flat since decoupling was enacted, despite the state’s population growth, while power use nationally doubled, per capita.
That said, decoupling is not universally embraced. Critics say it’s not fair to consumers, since those who make the greatest efforts to conserve pay the same rates as those who do not. Still, individuals and companies have other means of reducing their energy costs, such as by using two-way meters and participating in demand response programs in which they pay lower rates during periods of low demand.

Maryland, Massachusetts, Idaho, and New York are among the other states that are using the decoupling strategy, but some lawmakers are pushing for the practice to become mandatory and had hoped the stimulus bill would be the vehicle for doing so. It is not… Or it is, depending on whom you ask and how you interpret the language in the legislation.
While earlier versions of the bill explicitly called for decoupling, the version that passed uses suggestive language without a right-out mandate. It says that in order to receive continued funding from the act, states should employ a policy that ensures that a utility’s financial incentives are aligned with helping its customers use energy more efficiently.
According to an article by Jonathan Stein in Mother Jones, a number of Republican lawmakers used the occasion of a preliminary meeting of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, where lawmakers were to begin crafting climate control legislation, to raise the issue of decoupling. Stein reports that, “Republicans on the panel repeatedly insisted that the stimulus bill made decoupling mandatory. They also distributed a chart claiming that under decoupling, residential or commercial energy users would be charged a flat fee (like cable TV subscribers) that could mean a rate drop for high-energy users and a rate increase for low-energy users.”
The New York Times, via Greenwire, reports that Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said at this same meeting that the stimulus does not require decouplng and that there are a number of other ways states could employ toward the same goals. Indeed, a number of states prefer to create other incentives for utilities to encourage conservation.
Stein expresses preemptive worries that Republicans will hammer away at the question of whether states will move en masse toward decoupling and therefore stymie climate control legislation. What’s your take?

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.

3 responses

  1. Why would this hurt efforts aimed at other forms of legislation? Why can’t we have both?
    Claiming to want to protect consumers from high energy prices while opposing proven tactics like decoupling sounds like having your cake and eating it too. Guess what will happen with any greenhouse gas legislation? Energy prices will rise! A lot!
    Therefore – which is more fair: Let utilities pay to help consumers retrofit homes and energy use at no upfront charge to them, OR, just slap them with higher prices? Either way, price sensitive consumers are going to become more efficient, but the former sounds a whole lot better.
    Energy prices are going to rise no matter what! That’s part of the reality of our times. De-coupling is a fast and painless way to start a transition and I’m frankly shocked that Democrats are not “Getting it”.

  2. Opponents to decoupling at the subcommittee meeting where Republican, just to be clear. Markey’s point was made not to support or criticize decoupling, but to say that the stimulus bill does not mandate it and that there are alternatives to decoupling, anyway.

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