Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sign of life in the PSC race

A couple weeks ago the Herald ran a typical little "look who's running for what office" story that new candidates/campaigns get from the press when Brad Crabtree annouced his candidacy for the ND Public Service Commission. Not surprising multiple papers in the state ran such articles about the same time.

Based on that article Crabtree looked like about the best you (or at least I) could expect, definitely better than Brian Kalk and Kevin Cramer who is running for Congress and whom Crabtree would replace. That probably merited a note here then, but I decided to push it off maybe until there was more out there than the basically extended press release coverage of the initial tossing of the hat into the ring.

Well, today's Herald Insight section contained a letter from Mike Schmidt of West Fargo.

Schmidt called Crabtree's announcement "interesting", and fit a lot of hyperbole and hyper-partisanship into a small space. But the first thing that caught my attention was some obsession with Xcel Energy that lead to the concluding line, "[i]t seems Crabtree would represent Xcel Energy rather than the citizens of our state."

I did not remember getting the impression that Schmidt apparently did that Crabtree had expressed "that Xcel Energy’s interests will be one of his major concerns." So I dug through Crabtree's campaign site to see what might have conveyed something like that. All I found referencing Xcel was the following paragraph from the Herald story from February 17:

“Every dollar you don't spend on energy is another dollar you have to spend on something else,” [Crabtree] said. “We have no energy efficiency policy in North Dakota. Take Xcel Energy, for example, because they are up in Grand Forks. If Xcel wants to make investments in their system and in building and facilities owned by their customers, that will reduce electricity and natural gas use, and the effect is less sales for Xcel. So you have to find ways, through rates and the regulatory process to (allow Xcel) to earn a return from those investments.”

Before we get to Schmidt and what Crabtree is not saying, let's look at what Crabtree is saying there.

The whole paragraph relates to efficiency. Indeed the cheapest energy you can have is energy you never use (and never have to build something to generate and transmit). But if a utility company makes its money by selling energy, and it makes more money by selling more energy, how do you get the utility company more on-board with efficiency?

The dominant and growing method is by "decoupling", making it so the money a utility makes is not simply directly related to how much energy it sells. There are some better and poorer ideas on how to approach this, but at the core the idea is to allow a utility to still make enough money to cover fixed cost and have a reasonable profit margin even if through efficiency its customers use less energy.

Decoupling is worth more discussion, and I assume it will be revisited here. For now I will leave it by saying that being more energy efficient to cut use by 20% even if the energy bill only drops by 10% sounds a lot better than not cutting energy use and then adding to the energy bill the costs of building new power plants needed because of increasing customers and a lack of supply.

Back to Schmidt, his interpretation is that Crabtree is going to work on behalf of Xcel's interests, in particular. The much more reasonable explanation is that Xcel was cited as an example that is relevant to Grand Forks in an interview with the Grand Forks newspaper. If the interview had been with the Fargo paper, maybe Crabtree says exactly the same thing but with "Otter Tail" replacing "Xcel".

Thinking Crabtree is intent on helping Xcel in particular is simply a misinterpretation, but one might still complain that Crabtree is intent on helping any private utility's interest. Schmidt's letter seems like more a political diatribe than anything, but I will grant that misunderstanding may have pushed him further off-track that he would have otherwise been.

Schmidt suggests a Republican pledging "to work on behalf of a private utility’s interests" would have caused quite a fuss. Where might we find some indication of a Republican or any other politician looking out for utility company interests? Why, right there also in today's Herald.

In North Dakota, MDU and Otter Tail have a state law on their side that allows them to charge customers for their Big Stone II expenses, including interest and the utilities’ normal return on equity. They may do so “even though the project may never be fully operational or used by the public utility to serve its customers,” the law says.

North Dakota’s Legislature unanimously approved the law five years ago, when state officials were hoping to encourage development of a new coal-fueled power plant in North Dakota. That has not happened.

Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark said he believed the legislation is still sound. By making it less expensive for utilities to finance electric generation projects, it can provide substantial benefits to ratepayers, he said.

But the law also makes it easier for utilities to hit up ratepayers for their development costs, regardless of whether a project is built, he said.

The Big Stone II power plant is a whole other story. But the above article show how the entire ND legislature a few years back worked on behalf of private utility interests by allowing an out from development becoming sunk cost. That sort of incentivizing is reasonable and suitable for governments to do. It would make more sense though trying to encourage 21st century clean energy rather than 19th century dirty energy, which brings us back to Brad Crabtree.

Without judging such stances there is no indication Crabtree would "use the PSC to wage war on North Dakota energy production" or that "he wants to end the fossil fuel industry." Someone who has worked so much on carbon capture and storage like Crabtree sounds (over?)eager to risk a lot of sunk cost, or more likely rate increases, to keep the fossil fuel industry on its perch.

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