Statewide energy efficiency program halted after utility regulator meeting

By Lauren McGaughy,|The Times Picayune

Louisiana’s utilities regulators voted to halt implementation of a statewide energy-efficiency program during a Wednesday meeting in Baton Rouge. While Eric Skrmetta, chairman of the state Public Service Commission, said the vote was necessary to revisit specifics of the plan, environmentalists and commissioners who opposed the vote’s outcome were critical of the move.

The initiative, first passed at a December PSC meeting under previous Chairman Foster Campbell, gave electric utilities and natural gas providers about a year to develop programs that would have likely offered residential and business customers incentives for making improvements that lower their electricity use.

Supporters of the statewide initiative said it would benefit businesses and ratepayers in the long-term by cutting cut down on power consumption and energy costs, as Energy Smart, a similar program in New Orleans, has since 2011.

However, newly-elected PSC Chair Eric Skrmetta said the vote to halt the program was necessary because the initiative was “shoved through” in December without proper research being done first.

“Now we’re going to go back, we’re going to start over and we’re going to get it done the right way,” Skrmetta said in an interview after the meeting. “I don’t want to see things not done, but I want to see things done in the right way which causes the least impact on the consumer and makes the most sense.”

Skrmetta added a report presented to the PSC in December, on which the panel made their decision, was inaccurate because the contractor hired to do the research had a “conflict of interests.”

But two other commissioners and environmental groups present at the meeting were critical of the vote, which they said flip-flopped on the December decision and halted a program badly needed in the state.

New Orleans-area Commissioner Lambert Boissiere, in an unusually vocal denunciation of the vote by the panel’s most measured member, said similar initiatives have already been implemented in 46 other states where energy-efficiency programs are “normal and reasonable.”

“They want to get rid of energy-efficiency in Louisiana,” Boissier said, referring to Commissioners Skrmetta, Clyde Holloway and Scott Angelle, the three members who voted to revisit the program.

Boissiere also criticized Skrmetta’s decision not to allow members of the public to speak at the meeting, a move Sierra Club Gulf States Representative Jordan Macha called “unprecedented.”

“That was an insult to everyone in Louisiana,” Boissiere said of the decision. “I was chair for two years and I never kept anyone from speaking.”

Skrmetta defended the decision after the meeting, saying all arguments for and against the program were made in December and didn’t need to be re-hashed. But environmental and green energy groups who made the ride over from New Orleans Wednesday to attend the meeting were caught-off guard by the decision.

“This is unprecedented,” Macha said after the meeting, noting the initiative was only added to the agenda on Monday. “If there have been interested parties that want to speak to this, they haven’t been turned away in the past.”

Macha said the initiative passed in December, called “Quick Start,” would cost less than 1/2 cent per customer while yielding savings of more than three to four that times in the long-term. Quick Start would be the first step of the multi-phase energy-efficiency program.

Linda Stone, Program and Operations Director for Global Green USA in New Orleans,  was also disappointed in Skrmetta’s decision. She said energy-efficiency programs have “zillions of benefits,” such as the $625 in annual savings benefiting customers of Global Green’s NOLA Wise program.

However, the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting was not surprising due to the changing composition of the commission.

In December, long-time PSC commissioner Jimmy Field, of Baton Rouge, retired. The moderate Republican was replaced by former Jindal administration official Scott Angelle. Angelle has voted alongside Skrmetta and Holloway in the first two meetings of his tenure, creating a formidable majority on the commission.

During Wednesday’s committee, Angelle said he was concerned Quick Start would put undue pressure on small-to-medium sized commercial customers since large industries would not be covered by the program.

He cited information from the December PSC report which said Quick Start would initially cost the average commercial user between $66 and $97 per month, depending on region.

“This is something we have no business being in,” Commissioner Holloway of Forest Hill said of the energy-efficiency program, adding it “was wrong to put this burden, this $97 a month on the back of someone.”

Skrmetta said he expected the initiative to be revisited within the next few months, at which time the commission would hire new researchers to undertake a more thorough review into the costs and benefits of such a program. The next PSC business and executive committee will take place in Baton Rouge on March 20.

Keep watching for more on the Public Service Commission.

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