Democrats urge agency to prop up renewables

Source: Hannah Hess, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Three Democrats with key roles in energy policymaking yesterday called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to prop up the only existing federal law that encourages the use of renewable energy in electricity production.

On June 29, FERC will hold a conference on implementation issues under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, of 1978. The law created a market for power from non-utility power producers, including natural-gas-fired “cogeneration” plants and other renewable energy sources.

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington joined Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Bobby Rush of Illinois in a three-page letter to FERC Chairman Norman Bay that notes how electricity policy has evolved in the nearly four decades since the law was passed.

“Competitive wholesale electricity markets now serve two-thirds of Americans’ load and, as a result of innovation, lower costs and supportive public policy, 13 percent of electric power generated in the U.S. in 2014 was from renewable resources. Over time, PURPA has been integral to the policy framework that has helped increase efficiency and remove barriers to entry for renewable and cogeneration resources,” the lawmakers wrote.

Congress also has repeatedly authorized federal tax credits for producing and investing in renewable generation, most recently in the 2015 year-end spending bill. State renewable portfolio standards and the expansion of net-metering programs in 44 states also have supported the expansion of rooftop solar and other distributed generation, making PURPA effectively dormant.

But the lawmakers said PURPA’s provisions on renewable energy still are key in parts of the country that may otherwise have significant barriers to renewables. They said it would be “improper” for FERC to narrow the scope of the provision any further.

Critics complain the law gives independent power providers an unfair leg up. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce panel on energy and power, dismissed the concerns of Pallone and Rush, ranking members of the full committee and subcommittee, respectively.

Republicans want to amend PURPA to add a new standard that would require public utility commissions to consider whether policies they approve effectively subsidize new technologies.

“Consumers should not be burdened with higher utility bills in order to subsidize technologies, especially those that are only enjoyed by a few,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) when he introduced S. 2384, which would amend PURPA. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) introduced companion legislation (H.R. 4232) in the House.

“Everyone deserves access to affordable and reliable energy, and this measure would ensure that all states take a hard look at whether consumers are being asked to pay their fair share,” Flake said.

Democrats suggest FERC should answer specific questions during the June conference, including whether there are currently technologies or categories of facilities, such as battery storage, marine and hydrokinetics, or fuel cells, that may be eligible to certify as qualifying non-utility power producers but are not currently being built or certified as such.