There’s ALEC in the air

May 4, 2014

Katherine Pioli

Rocky Mountain Power knows that its customers want to feel good about the energy they buy and use. Mining natural gas by fracking, coal by mountain top removal, high carbon footprints and excessive greenhouse gases, though natural consequences of our current energy industry, aren’t things that Rocky Mountain Power (RMP) wants customers to think of when they think of their own energy supply.

Wisely, RMP avoids reminding its customers of these realities, instead touting the greenness of its other efforts such as the Blue Sky program –sending mailers with each monthly utility bill espousing the company’s “commitment to protect and enhance the environment.”

Last month, a Rocky Mountain Power mailer informed customers that they saved the energy equivalent of powering 28,000 homes thanks to efficiency programs. And, as icing on the cake, Rocky Moun­tain Power announced plans to build Utah’s first solar farm. All signs that Rocky Mountain Power is the progressive, green-conscious energy utility that customers want. Right?

“This may sound cynical,” says Matt Pacenza, Policy Director for HEAL Utah,” but Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky program is a layer of green frosting on a very brown cake.”

According to HEAL Utah, a Salt Lake-based environmental non-profit that promotes renewable energy and advocates for a nuclear-free and toxic energy-free environment, all of Rocky Mountain Power’s efforts toward creating an effective renewable energy profile, including the latest 9,000-panel, two-megawatt solar farm funded largely with customer investment in the Blue Sky program (powering the equivalent of 500 Utah homes) amount to a drop in the bucket.

“In terms of energy delivered to Utah customers,” says Dave Eskelsen, spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power, “renewable sources—wind, hydro, solar and biomass—make up about 15% of our company’s energy capacity as of 2012. Coal makes up another 60%.” The national average for coal-produced energy, according to numbers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is 44.8%.

HEAL Utah has long been dissatisfied with what they see as Rocky Mountain Power’s lip service to renewable energy, pacifying concerned customers with relatively small environmental gains through the Blue Sky program. But recent announcements have shifted HEAL’s attention.

In January, Rocky Mountain Power requested a monthly fee increase for net metering customers, those who generate power for the grid through solar panels and wind turbines. The fee, they said, would cover the cost of upkeep on the grid infrastructure used by solar energy-generating customers.

It is an argument taken almost word for word from prefabricated legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Arizona has already passed the ALEC-produced bill. Now Arizona homeowners who install rooftop solar, ALEC calls them “freeriders,” pay 70 cents per kilowatt capacity, around $3-6 a month. Rocky Mountain Power hopes to charge customers a flat $4.25 monthly fee. Since enacting the fee in Arizona, requests for solar installations in the state have gone down 60%, exactly the result ALEC wants.

“We as customers pay the utility about 8 cents per kilowatt of energy. Rocky Mountain buys excess energy from rooftop solar producers at about 3 cents per kilowatt. So those people generating power are actually making money for Rocky Moun­tain,” says Pacenza. “And if the utility is so worried about making up costs lost by customers who are not paying as much, they should also be charging extra fees for people with energy-efficient homes who pay less on their monthly bill. Where will it stop?”

There is a lot of work to be done in this state to get Utah on track with clean energy and for every step forward (Blue Sky-funded solar farm) Rocky Mountain Power seems to take a step back (rooftop solar fee hike).

The path for Rocky Mountain Power could be a simple one, according to Pacenza. “Give people what they want,” he says. “Buy more renewables and transition away from coal faster.” If not, utility customers may take matters into their own hands.

In 2012 the Utah legislature passed the “eBay bill,” Senate Bill 12, allowing the Utah-based eBay office to purchase 100% of their energy directly from a renewable power source in accordance with the company’s LEED Gold standards policy.

In Utah, the new legislation only allows large businesses to create these independent contracts. But around the country, similar alternative utility purchases are being made through Community Choice Aggregations (CCAs). Like the “eBay bill,” CCAs start with legislation allowing cities, counties and independent cooperatives of people to aggregate their buying power and secure contracts with alternative energy sources. Currently nearly one million Americans in Massa­chusetts, Ohio, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island are receiving their power through a CCA.

“With Utah CCA customers demanding power from a specific source, it would change the overall mix of Rocky Mountain’s power portfolio,” says Pacenza, who hopes that some day soon Utah, too, will have a CCA option for power customers.

That day may not be too far away. During the last Utah legislative session Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, proposed House Bill 110. Powell’s constituents, many of whom rely on the ski tourism industry and worry about climate change, have shown interest in purchasing their energy from renewable, clean sources. Powell’s bill proposes an expansion of the “eBay bill” to allow cities and counties to bulk purchase energy for their residents.

Though HB110 did not make it to a vote, it did gain important attention. Now referred to the House Rules Committee for interim study, the bill will have time to receive deeper investigation and discussion, a step that Pacenza and HEAL Utah considers extremely favorable.

Learn more about HEAL’s campaign for Community Choice Aggregations on their website. While you’re there, check out HEAL’s True Blue Sky campaign and sign a petition calling on Rocky Mountain Power President and CEO Mr. Richard Walje to invest more in renewable energy. Now is the time for Rocky Mountain Power to hear public opinion re. projects like the solar farm and the rooftop solar fee hike. You can also sign up to receive HEAL’s email action alerts.