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Cathy Kunkel: Legislature can push energy efficiency, lower electric bills

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- What can we do to get electric bills under control in West Virginia? West Virginia's residential electric rates have risen more than 50 percent in the past five years. The burden of high electric bills often falls on the households that can least afford it.

West Virginia still has the seventh lowest residential electric rates in the country, but residents of 26 other states have lower electric bills. That means we are literally throwing money out the windows of our leaky homes. Next door, in Maryland, new houses are built to standards 15 percent more efficient than those in West Virginia. We are ranked 49th in the country for energy efficiency.

Ironically, as electric rates continue to go up, our power companies are largely overlooking the cheapest and least risky resource: energy efficiency. Just as utilities can invest in new power plants, they can also invest in reducing electricity use. Utility efficiency programs are paid for through electric rates, just as investments in power plants are. Energy efficiency investments cost ratepayers less than half the cost of producing the same new electricity in a power plant.

Utilities can offer consumers incentives for recycling old and inefficient refrigerators, home energy audits by local businesses with rebates for efficiency improvements, incentives for the purchase of EnergyStar appliances, custom incentives for energy efficiency projects undertaken by industrial customers, and more. Our utilities are beginning to offer some of these programs, although not to the level that they do in neighboring states where they also operate. These programs would provide residents and businesses the tools they need to manage their electric bills.

Experience from other states shows that spending money to reduce our demand for electricity is far cheaper than investments in generating the same amount of power.

The Legislature can encourage greater investment in energy efficiency and savings for West Virginia residents and businesses by passing the integrated resource planning bill (HB 2803) introduced by Delegate Tim Manchin.

Integrated resource planning is a tool adopted by more than half of the states in the country to provide greater transparency in power company investment decisions and to make sure that investments in energy efficiency are given equal consideration with investments in traditional power plants. It would require our power companies to submit long-term plans to the Public Service Commission analyzing different options, including energy efficiency investments, for meeting future electricity demand.

In the Pacific Northwest -- where electric rates are lower than West Virginia's -- integrated resource planning has shown that energy efficiency can cost-effectively meet 85 percent of expected electricity demand growth over the next 20 years.

Stronger energy efficiency investment in West Virginia would mean lower electric bills and more local jobs. The Legislature can take the first step this year by passing HB 2803, the integrated resource planning bill.

Kunkel is a policy analyst for Energy Efficient West Virginia.


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