The Sausage-Making Factory
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In a deliberative democracy, ideas that may start off rough have a chance to be polished and cleaned on the way to becoming policy. In legislative hearings, bills are scrutinized from many angles by many stakeholders. Although the process can be frustrating to watch, it is one of the strengths of our government. 

Senate Bill 101, Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), would require the Railbelt utilities to be 80% renewable by 2040, with intermediate milestones on the way. This is a big change, and many details are associated with implementing it. Inletkeeper has championed the legislation, and we think the present bill is a strong one that would be good for the future of our watershed. This is not to say it couldn’t benefit from the scrutiny and debate of the legislative process. But the bill has been held, without a hearing this year, in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee chaired by Senator Jesse Bjorkman, who represents the northern Kenai Peninsula. At a mid-January forum hosted by the Resource Development Council, an oil and gas advocacy group, Bjorkman said the RPS “is going nowhere” – he intends to hold it in his committee without debate, without hearing, and without a vote that would allow it to progress to consideration by the full Senate. As committee chair, he has the unilateral power to do this, shutting off further deliberation and voting on the bill.  

This does a particular disservice to those such as the Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA), the Fairbanks region’s electric co-op. In late January, the GVEA board unanimously passed a position statement on the RPS. “While we do support many of the broad goals of the RPS, we take issue with the mandated measures…” their statement reads. It goes on to name specific changes the board would like to see to the bill.  

“We hope that (the position paper is) helpful to the sausage-making factory down in Juneau as they pick this up,” said GVEA board chair Tom DeLong.

Unlikely, because one particular sausage-maker is refusing to allow any sausage-making. While we disagree with many of the points in GVEA’s position, they should have an opportunity to be addressed in the legislature during debate and discussion on the bill.  

One reason Bjorkman opposes the RPS is because of the fines on utilities for not meeting standards, which he says hurt electric ratepayers. One important detail of the RPS fines is that utilities cannot incorporate them into electric rates. Instead, they’ll have to pay from “margins” – a reserve of extra funds that utilities are allowed to collect as a financial cushion. While it’s true that every cent a utility has comes ultimately from members, collecting the fine from margins creates a strong buffer between it and your electric bill – unlike the rising cost of gas, 100% of which is passed directly along to ratepayers.  

The fines themselves “are so small as to be nearly irrelevant,” according to local energy nerd Erin McKittrick. McKittrick calculates that if utilities fail to build any renewable generation before the RPS’s 2035 milestone, fines would increase their total costs by less than 1%. If utilities sit on their hands until 2040, fines would amount to less than 5%. She makes these calculations with the extremely generous assumption that gas costs will increase only by 3% – while the utilities themselves have estimated gas costs could double or triple over the next decade. In that case, RPS fines would be invisible in the total rise of energy costs.  

Ratepayers have far more to lose from utility inaction than from the fines that would break it. 

P.S: The House-side RPS bill is also stalled – this time in the House Energy Committee, which has just introduced its own related bill, HB 368, “Clean Energy Standards.” This bill nonsensically includes coal in its definition of “clean energy” and would require a vaguely sketched redesign of the Railbelt transmission system – apparently including connecting the Copper Valley – before its weak standards even go into effect. It’s flaming garbage. Here’s Erin McKittrick again with more.  

In other energy news: On account of the above-mentioned town hall by Senator Bjorkman on Feb. 24, we’re canceling this month’s Coffee and Climate gathering, normally held on the fourth Saturday of the month. This monthly discussion, with no agenda except sharing thoughts about local climate and energy issues, usually occurs at the Goods in Soldotna. We hope you can make it on March 23.  

Department of Energy project in conjunction with the Ocean Renewable Power Corporation, a Maine-based tidal power start-up that has long been interested in the potential power of Cook Inlet tides, is set to deploy two of its floating “TidGen” devices in the East Foreland region offshore of Nikiski. KDLL reports.