Who's going to pull the plug on rising use of electricity?

HARRISBURG, Pa. - With electricity bills across most of Pennsylvania set to jump in a couple years when rate caps expire, a scramble is on at the Capitol to see how that might be averted.

From Gov. Ed Rendell to the state's largest utilities, everyone agrees that conservation is a good idea. It's just that they don't agree on who should shoulder the burden of getting people to stop using so much electricity.

The subject is getting attention this year, and figures to get more this fall, as Rendell ratchets up pressure on the Legislature to approve his sweeping plan to subsidize clean energy projects and cut electricity costs. A pillar of his plan is conservation, and one of the ways he wants to do it has utilities worried.

Rendell wants to require utilities to invest in conservation projects when it's cheaper than buying more electricity to meet rising demand. The idea is to flatten demand instead of letting it continue to rise every year, advocates say.

"That's a lot cheaper than building another power plant," said Sonny Popowsky, the state's utility consumer advocate.

It also could mean stringing fewer new transmission lines across the land, Popowsky and others say. And at 4 cents per kilowatt hour, conservation programs are substantially cheaper than the 10 cents or so it costs for every kilowatt hour of electricity, conservation advocates say.

There might be a few ways to curtail demand.

Pennsylvania's rural electric cooperatives execute rolling shutdowns of members' water heaters on days when electricity is most in demand and, thus, most expensive. Some utilities, such as Baltimore Electric & Gas and Chicago's Commonwealth Edison, pay customers to volunteer their air conditioners for rolling shutdowns and are experimenting with automated thermostats in customers' homes.

Rendell's plan envisions utilities giving customers the ability to program thermostats and appliances to shut off at certain times of the day, and hiring contractors that specialize in getting home- and business owners to cut electricity use.

"It's not about the utility controlling your house," said Dan Griffiths, who directs Rendell's energy office. "It's about giving you the ability to control your house."

Utilities in Pennsylvania, from PPL to Duquesne Light, are carrying out their own experiments with conservation, but bristle at Rendell's ideas. They say everyone from governments to owners of large homes has to be willing to undergo a major attitude change in an electricity-loving society.

For example, TVs are getting larger and using more electricity even as people are watching them more.

"We cannot be the only people who are being told to adjust demand," said J. Michael Love, president of the Harrisburg-based Energy Association of Pennsylvania, which lobbies on behalf of the state's electric utilities. "It's not just utilities that have to change."

And Love said he worries that a law that dictates when a utility must cut usage will not be flexible enough to balance the demands of a business in which electricity is sold in wholesale markets and prices change by the minute.

Some question whether utilities can be trusted to carry the banner of conservation and protect ratepayers in a deregulated market.

"The more we consume, the more they make," said David Hughes of Citizen Power, a Pittsburgh-based ratepayer advocacy group.

But Love insisted the argument is false, and pointed to the willingness of utilities to accept restructured, or "decoupled," rates from state regulators. Such rate structures essentially encourage utilities to help their customers conserve, rather than letting conservation eat away at profit.

Other states have taken that route, Popowsky said, including some that have more aggressive conservation policies.


Marc Levy covers state government for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at mlevy(at)ap.org.