The drumbeat is already building, loud and clear.
Vice President Dick Cheney was hard at work pounding it out on MSNBC’s “Hardball” just last week. His message: We are in the midst of an energy crisis.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was banging away too.
“The good news is that America’s energy problems can be solved,” the former senator from Michigan told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a week ago. “The bad news is that the situation in California is not isolated, it is not temporary and it will not fix itself.”
According to an article in the Washington Post, a cabinet-level panel headed by Cheney is “preparing recommendations for expanding production of oil, gas, clean-burning coal and other sources that will be presented to [President] Bush in the next several weeks.”
No one should be surprised that a pair of former oilmen such as Bush and Cheney, and a sidekick such as Abraham — who compiled one of the Senate’s most dismal environmental records during his six years on Capitol Hill — are set to burn our way out of the mess they say we are in.
The push is on.
What’s remarkable is that this administration barely bothers to pay lip service to what activists like those at the Environmental Law & Policy Center say is the quickest way to start addressing our energy situation.
Conservation and an increased reliance on clean, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power can change our energy trajectory almost immediately, compared to the years it takes to bring a new power plant on line.
By combining an investment in energy-efficiency programs with a commitment to renewable energy sources, Michigan could reduce net electricity costs by $968 million by 2020, according to a report from the Center.
In addition to the direct financial benefits, there would be significant reductions to pollutants: sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, would be cut by 56 percent; nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog, reduced by 71 percent; carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, by 51 percent.
(The entire report can be found online at www.elpc.org.)
“The Midwest Clean Energy Development Plan is visionary,” says ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner, “and it is practical and achievable.”
Maybe. But under the Engler administration, Michigan has been moving in the opposite direction. In 1996, the governor’s signed into law a bill that rolled back energy-efficiency standards for new homes and apartments to 1980 levels.
Around the same time, according to one former member of the state’s Public Services Commission, intense political pressure was being applied to scuttle mandatory energy-efficiency programs paid for and implemented by the state’s two dominant electric utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Power.
According to Skiles Boyd, director of environmental management and resources for DTE Energy, the programs were cut because they weren’t cost-effective.
But Martin Kushler, an MPSC staff member at the time, told Metro Times that an independent study by outside consultants found the energy conservation programs to be very cost-effective. Programs that helped get old refrigerators out of circulation and rebates that encouraged businesses to install energy-efficient lighting could save about 2.6 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity used. By comparison, the cost of bringing a gas-fired plant on line costs more than twice as much, about 5.6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
At the urging of the utilities, the MPSC, by a 2-1 vote, virtually eliminated the requirement.
“The insiders who were behind that are the same ones who’ve been pushing deregulation,” notes Kushler.
As a result of the industry attack on energy efficiency, according to a report by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, spending for such programs was cut by nearly 95 percent.
“They just eviscerated it,” recalls James Clift, an energy specialist for the Michigan Environmental Council.
While Michigan has been marching backward, neighboring states have been moving ahead.
“Studies in Wisconsin predicted that energy efficiency programs in that state could save residents $492 million by 2010, while creating 8,500 new jobs,” reports Clift. “Michigan needs to significantly increase support of energy-efficiency programs.”
There is a possibility that could happen under deregulation. According to the plan, DTE Energy will refinance its debt on so-called stranded costs (primarily its Fermi II nuclear reactor) by obtaining bonds at a reduced rate that will be paid off by customers.
(One of the big issues during the legislative battle over deregulation was the contention that customers shouldn’t have to pay for DTE Energy’s mistakes if the utility deregulated. Ratepayers lost that battle.)
Of the savings DTE Energy realizes by refinancing, up to $48 million is slated to go toward new energy-efficiency and low-income programs. However, critics contend that the amount is not etched in stone, so there is no telling how much will eventually go toward cutting power use.
It would have been much better, says Kushler, had Michigan followed the lead of other states and mandated that such programs be based on a fixed surcharge.Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or email@example.com