Hearing illustrates balancing acts energy bill writers face 

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, May 15, 2015

Several points of tension emerged yesterday as senators considered how best to address the nation’s energy infrastructure needs, including the balance of state and federal decisionmaking authority, the role of distributed generation in providing reliable energy and the extent to which utilities should be required to purchase renewable power.

A hearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee homed in on some of the key considerations Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and her colleagues will have to balance as they try to craft the first bipartisan, comprehensive energy bill to be considered in years. The hearing was called to consider nearly two dozen proposed energy infrastructure bills proposing various approaches to compensating owners of rooftop solar panels, siting new gas pipelines and electric transmission wires, and updating decades-old laws governing utilities, among other issues.

Distributed generation

Two senators from opposite sides of the aisle demonstrated an interest in resolving the existing tension between utilities and rooftop solar providers that has intensified in several states as photovoltaic panels have spread in recent years — but their sympathies seem to align with opposite sides of the fight.

Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, touted S. 1213, his bill establishing parameters for states to consider when setting net-metering rates. King said rates should account for the benefits that sources such as rooftop solar panels provide and said utilities should give homeowners a “just and reasonable” payment for the electricity they sell back to the grid. The bill, he said, was meant to avoid “little brush-fire wars in all 50 states” as rooftop solar and related technologies inevitably spread.

Murkowski has introduced a less prescriptive net-metering bill, S. 1219, which calls for studies of net metering policies with an emphasis on the costs borne by utilities and ratepayers without rooftop solar panels to maintain integrity of the electric grid.

For King, promoting rooftop solar is a “sovereignty issue” that recognizes “people have a right to generate their own electricity,” he said during the hearing. Murkowski, on the other hand, asked, “How can we accomplish this in the most affordable way to customers … and keep it reliable, as well?”

A utility witness said the issue should not be considered a referendum on support for renewable energy overall.

“The issue of rooftop solar has led to extreme rhetoric on all sides, but the issue is not pro-solar or anti-solar,” said Jonathan Weisgall, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs at Berkshire Hathaway Energy, pointing to overarching concerns with cost-effectiveness and fairness to all customers. “The utility should be agnostic” about whether customers generate their own power, he said.

In a brief interview later in the day, Murkowski said she needed to study King’s proposal more closely, but she agreed that they shared the goal of properly managing the transition underway in the power sector.

“It’s all toward the bigger picture, which is how do you fairly do this integration?” Murkowski told E&E Daily. “And quite frankly, we shouldn’t get fixated on rooftop solar, because next year it might be something else that’s out there that’s putting power into the grid. So how do we accommodate for it and do it fairly and equitably for everybody out there? That’s our big task.”


The committee also considered various proposals meant to ease construction of pipelines. Among them were S. 411, from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), and S. 1196 from Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), both of which would make it easier to build pipelines in national parks and across federal land.

Barrasso’s bill targets gathering lines to collect gas that is often vented or flared from oil wells in states like North Dakota.

“Over the last five years, we have seen significant amounts of natural gas vented and flared in states like North Dakota while New England continues to experience a shortage of natural gas — and this has resulted in some of the highest energy prices in the country,” Barrasso noted at the hearing.

Among other measures, they would eliminate a requirement for Congress to provide case-by-case authorizations for pipeline construction through national parks, drawing opposition from the National Parks Conservation Association and other groups that outlined their objections in a letter to committee members before the hearing.

“The continued success of the national park idea depends upon careful stewardship of their resources,” the groups wrote. “Oil and natural gas pipelines are examples of a utility that could cause an unreasonable impairment to a national park unit.”

Other pipeline bills that won support from industry witnesses yesterday were S. 1228, a cross-border pipeline bill from Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and S. 1210, Sen. Shelly Moore Capito’s (R-W.Va.) bill meant to streamline pipeline permitting.

Capito’s bill would set a deadline on agencies responsible for permitting pipelines but eliminates a mandatory approval clause that generated a veto threat in another pipeline bill that passed the House earlier this year. Hoeven’s bill was unchanged compared to an earlier version that has prompted a veto threat (E&E Daily, May 7).


Senators focused intently on the Public Utilities Regulatory Act (PURPA), the 1978 law that set in motion numerous reforms to establish electricity markets, reduce energy use and promote alternative sources of supply, such as renewable energy and cogeneration.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) took aim at PURPA’s requirement for utilities to buy power from cogeneration or small renewable energy facilities in certain instances. His bill, S. 1037, would allow utilities to avoid the “mandatory purchase obligation” if their state regulators determined there was no demand for additional power. He said the obligation provides additional subsidy for renewable energy projects that already receive tax credits and forces utility customers to pay above-market rates for power they do not need.

Weisgall, of Berkshire Hathaway, backed the idea and suggested that Risch go even further.

Weisgall’s testimony included proposed legislative language that would spare utilities from the purchase obligation if they participated in energy imbalance markets, which he said would provide a driver to get additional cost-effective renewable energy onto the grid. He pointed to an existing imbalance market operated by the California Independent System Operator that includes utilities in Nevada and Washington state and has won plaudits from the Natural Resources Defense Council and American Wind Energy Association, among others.

That proposal did not sit well with ENR Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who was instrumental in investigating market manipulation by Enron and its consequences in California and the Pacific Northwest. Cantwell pointed out that the imbalance market in California, which launched in November, is being investigated by FERC following a series of price spikes (EnergyWire, March 18).

“I can tell you one big group that doesn’t support it, and it’s the Pacific Northwest. So the Pacific Northwest is not going to support another cooked-up scheme from California ISO about energy markets, OK?” she said. “We’re not getting screwed over again by another Enron-style ‘Look over here, don’t pay attention to what’s really going on over here.'”

Cantwell is pursuing her own proposal to modernize the electric grid, including some modifications to PURPA. The “Grid Modernization Act,” S. 1243, would add to the 1978 law a new “resilience” standard requiring utilities and states to consider the ability to adapt to changing conditions and recover from disruptions in future investments. It al