Springtime in D.C. - Cold, Sunny, Chance of Hearings and Orders

PACE got a taste of warm weather, sunshine and BBQ last week, visiting with Cobb EMC, a progressive urban/suburban electric cooperative just outside Atlanta that serves over 200,000 meters. Cobb’s board and leadership team are responding adeptly to consumer demand for renewable energy by making significant investments in utility-scale solar. PACE also visited the Southern States Energy Board (we joined SSEB earlier this year) to discuss energy and environmental issues that are top-of mind to the elected officials in SSEB’s sixteen state, two territory membership.

Returning to D.C., I found that with Easter recess in the rearview mirror, the springtime D.C. sprint is on to accomplish something before the 4th of July recess and mid-term elections take over. Only one thing is missing – the spring. Many of us are still wearing coats and gloves. So, the federal policy community is keeping warm here by staying busy, as this short overview of activity will reveal.

Last week, the White House released its long-awaited “One Federal Decision” Executive Order. This followed on an August 2017 Executive Order with the same nickname. The new order streamlines federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and permitting of significant infrastructure projects. For energy projects, FERC is now the lead.

The House Energy and Commerce Energy Subcommittee hosted all five FERC Commissioners; for four, it marked their first appearance at the annual hearing used to explain agency priorities. Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton praised the Commission for quickly getting back to full speed after losing its quorum last fall. The range of topics covered in this hearing serves as a solid reminder of how much is at stake in energy policy decisions at the federal and state levels over the next decade.

Two days later, FERC released a Notice of Inquiry into updating a 1999 policy that governs certifying natural gas pipelines. The NOI is a recognition of the substantial and long-lasting shift in the electric generation mix toward natural gas and of the thorny environmental and eminent domain questions that surround each project. “Resilience” of the energy delivery system and the relationship to natural gas pipeline capacity and geography is a particular focus of the NOI and expected public comments.

Telecommunications access is just as important as fuels for driving our economy and energy innovation. That’s one reason U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is passionate about bringing broadband to rural America. This week at USDA, he kicked off listening sessions to explore how best to use the $600 million in broadband investment funding included in the FY 2018 omnibus.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committeealso focused on rural America this week, where as Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) noted, “too many people are living on the edge of what Senator Tim Scott and I call energy insecurity.” PACE couldn’t agree more and applauds the Committee for shining a spotlight on this issue and federal efforts to address and overcome it.

What will these April showers bring in May?  Stay tuned …


Fired up to Do Good with LIHEAP

PACE is always seeking new avenues and alliances that will strengthen our ongoing mission of highlighting consumers’ interests in reliable and affordable energy. We’ve made a lot of new friends this past year. However, we are particularly excited about a new relationship with the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition (NEUAC). PACE officially joined NEUAC last week and is looking forward to diving in on various committees and learning from the expert leaders and volunteers who created NEUAC to strengthen efforts to help energy consumers in need.

As a short introduction, NEUAC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that “brings together a broad-based coalition of diverse member organizations and individuals dedicated to heightening awareness of the energy needs of low income energy consumers.” From its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, but working with member organizations across the country, NEUAC expends energy and effort to:

  • increasing awareness and understanding of the nature and magnitude of low-income energy problems.
  • formulating and advancing low-income energy policy.
  • providing information and technical assistance in the creation and development of fuel funds.
  • promoting the development of statewide and regional fuel funds.

The coalition has also greatly boosted the advocacy voice for the federal LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. LIHEAP and the millions of citizens it helps each year depend on annual congressional appropriations.

How does LIHEAP work? The federal government provides block grants from appropriated funds to states.  States then work with organizations including utilities and community support/service groups to make sure that funds are distributed to those in need through approved channels. The federal government requires that grantees target benefits to households with low incomes, adhere to income eligibility definitions, and focus on those households with the greatest home energy needs, taking into consideration age, disability, number of residents, and household income.

NEUAC members regularly meet with Members of Congress and other stakeholders to explain why LIHEAP is a critical program that helps vulnerable citizens afford energy services in hard times. PACE looks forward to joining other NEUAC members and leaders on letters, rallies and congressional visits that educate lawmakers and staff about the importance LIHEAP funding plays in keeping vulnerable consumers supplied with energy. As expressed by NEUAC earlier this year:

  • LIHEAP appropriations have fallen by more than a third in five years.
  • Current funding levels provide only enough LIHEAP funding to serve one-fifth of eligible households.
  • Although the economy has improved, it hasn’t for many LIHEAP households.
  • While costs for energy are low, the burden to low-income families is significant with many paying up to 30% of their income for utilities.

PACE is truly fired up about engaging with NEUAC to help consumers. To learn more about NEUAC and LIHEAP, check out the coalition’s website and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.  


Views from a Visit with APGA

Last week, I was honored to be invited to address the American Public Gas Association’s annual marketing conference. Millions of consumers across the country receive natural gas service from community-owned distribution utilities.

Over 150 attendees spent three days examining trends affecting how customers view and use natural gas in their homes, businesses and vehicles. Spending a day with APGA gave me a great opportunity to spread the word about the Partnership’s mission and to re-learn some lessons about how natural gas distribution utilities view the energy policy landscape. I say “re-learn” because I spent two happy years representing APGA at federal agencies in the mid-2000’s.

Just like electric utilities, natural gas utilities are driven by the obligation to provide least-cost service and an extremely reliable product. They also feel whip-sawed by the ever-changing regulatory shuffle over the years in Washington, D.C. and the states. Attendees are paying particularly close attention to California’s drive to 100 percent renewables and the current fad for electrifying every possible application. Natural gas utilities are also increasingly aware that business forces outside the usual energy players are talking to consumers about choices for energy usage and control of home applications.

I was able to share observations from my first year with the Partnership and our ongoing campaigns on retail deregulation, natural gas hedging, and right-sizing payments for private solar. While deregulation and net metering aren’t directly of concern to gas distribution utilities, all energy stakeholders have a vested interest in keeping elected and appointed officials engaged in an ongoing, productive conversation about the realities of providing always-on, affordable service to millions of consumers. Hedging issues are a bit different animal, as natural gas utilities also depend on hedging to control supply and transportation costs.

Questions from the audience covered a lot of ground. Using electric co-op statistics we discussed shifts in the electric generation portfolio mix. Co-ops report that their national fuel mix was 54 percent coal in 2014, but 41 percent in 2016, while natural gas use went from 18 percent in 2014 to 26 percent in 2016. Understandably, the changing ratios of coal-natural gas-renewables are of interest to utilities who must rely on one fuel and pipeline network to deliver to consumers.

Natural gas utilities are curious about battery storage trends and electric vehicles; accordingly, I shared some Partnership observations from last fall’s blog “What’s in Store for Storage.” The audience seemed to agree that residential storage and a mature electric transportation infrastructure are not yet right around the corner. A robust effort is underway to study and deploy Natural Gas Vehicles.

The best presentations, in my view, give the speaker many insights and questions to follow up on, and that certainly was the case for my visit with APGA. Coming away with some old friendships and knowledge rekindled, I’ll be looking more closely at model energy communities to see how electric and gas choices are presented to consumers, and at LNG export issues to see how supply may impact the bottom line bills for homes and businesses across the nation. And, I’ll hope to bring news from a key natural gas gathering this June – the World Gas Conference here in Washington, D.C.