Address local energy demand issues from the bottom up

Aaron Scott, SBJ Editorial Photographer & DesignerOn Sunday, January 24, the News-Leader published an article about a regional utility shutting off power to several communities in the future due to the unknown costs associated with cap-and-trade legislation that is currently pending in congress.

From the article:

Associated Electric, which sells power wholesale to Sho-Me Power, is scaling back on selling electricity to municipal utilities because of an uncertain future in generating additional energy, said spokeswoman Nancy Southworth.

Proposals in Congress to rein in carbon dioxide emissions believed to be contributing to man-made global climate change have brought any plans to build or invest in new coal-burning power plants to a halt.

Although the new wind farm in DeKalb County will increase the percentage of power Associated Electric gets from wind from 1 percent to 4 percent, it won’t be enough for sustainable growth into the future.

“It would take a lot more wind turbines … to ever come close” to the demand, Southworth said.

Plus, burning fossil fuels remains less expensive for generating cheap electricity than alternative energy sources. The cap-and-trade legislation in Congress would dedicate more federal subsidies to developing alternative energy sources while making it more costly to burn coal for electricity generation.

While the source of wind power is free, wind and other alternative energy sources “cannot produce electricity that can be sold at reasonable rates, especially with carbon legislation pending in Congress,” according to a Dec. 28 letter Sho-Me Power sent to the city of Houston (Mo.).

As Springfield Business Journal’s resident Prius-driving, Sierra-Club-card-carrying environmentalist, I severely disagree with the way AECI and Sho-Me Power is handling this – using “carbon legislation pending in Congress” as a reason for a decrease in services, which to me seems more like political maneuvering than a valid excuse to limit power distribution.

But I do know that it’s a complex problem. On one hand, utilities need to build more power plants (be it coal, wind or otherwise) to meet the potential supply demands years and decades from now. On the other hand, some sort of regulation, even penalties, of large-scale CO2 and other greenhouse gas production need to be enacted to curb climate change, which ultimately increases rates for customers of utilities that create pollution. On yet another hand, a stronger push for energy efficiency improvements in this area, especially for low-income households, is needed to decrease local energy consumption.

Several months ago, Drury University’s Wendy Anderson commented to KSMU that, because Springfieldians have very low utilities rates, the customers of City Utilities use more energy than the average American household. In Springfield, if customers were more conservative in their energy usage, employing more energy-efficiency improvements and using energy more responsibly, would we need another plant on the scale of CU’s Southwest 2 coal-fired plant? Perhaps it was unavoidable, as CU’s service population continues to grow. (A sidenote: despite CU’s lower-than-average rates, cost – and the ultimate cost to customer – was the main counter-argument to any alternatives to a new coal-fired plant when Southwest 2 was proposed.)

I don’t know how AECI’s co-op rates compare, but the state as a whole enjoys below-average electricity rates of 7.42 cents/kwh, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s about 2.5 cents below the national average.

Whenever the price of any common good or service increases, whether it is food, gasoline, health care or energy, it will disproportionately affect the lower class – even when the community pays relatively little for one of those products. For middle- and upper-class households, a utility rate increase (no matter what the cause) would be a burden, but at least one that could be afforded. If CU raised its rates by 15 percent, there might be a good number of low-income households that fall behind on their utility bills and are eventually disconnected. But, if instead those households were shown how to reduce their energy usage by 15 percent, the rate increase would at least be absorbed. If you expound that to all households in a service area, that is 15 percent less energy to produce, which means additional energy sources don’t need to be added on such a large scale (as a new coal-fired plant) but rather incrementally through 50MW to 50MW wind farms and other innovations – such as developments in photovoltaics (solar) and algal biomass – that occur in the coming years.

On Jan. 22, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources issued a press release highlighting a Springfield homeowner that was one of the first in the state to take advantage of funding for weatherization from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Stacy Vasquez utilized weatherization services offered by the Ozarks Area Community Action Corp., which provides weatherization assistance to low-income families in Springfield and 10 southwest Missouri counties, by “sealing air leaks and installing insulation.” The state has $128 million from the ARRA stimulus package available to help cover the costs of efficiency improvements for low-income families, and according to U.S. Department of Energy estimates, “every dollar invested in the (weatherization program) returns $1.65 in energy-related benefits and $1.07 in other benefits like reducing pollution and unemployment.” The DNR press release states that weatherization can save $200 in annual utility costs, which, for a low-income family, can be a lot of money.

In addition to OACAC’s low-income services, CU offers a number of rebates for efficiency improvements for both residential and commercial customers. Joel Alexander, communications manager for CU, says the utility has received an “overwhelming response” from customers. Going into the second quarter of CU’s fiscal year, he says more than 50 percent of the funds available for rebates already are spoken for, resulting in the closure of the commercial lighting, geothermal heat pump and pre-season central air conditioner rebate programs. During the month of December, CU had processed a monthly record of 1,299 rebates, bringing the total for the first quarter to 3,159 rebates and audits.

Both OACAC and CU’s programs offer great opportunities for the community to reduce their energy usage, which need to be taken advantage of as much as possible if, as AECI and Sho-Me Power warn, more utilities threaten to scale back production and limit distribution with the possibility of cap-and-trade legislation coming on line.


1 Response to “Address local energy demand issues from the bottom up”

  1. 1 Kent Graves February 1, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Other great incentives to adopt cleaner energy solutions:

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