Needed: Consumer applicants to help forge state’s energy future

Timberlake

BY ANN TIMBERLAKE and BEN GREGG

These days, electricity is as much a necessity in our lives as food, fiber, air and water. If you are in doubt, go off the grid for a few days or if you really want to feel it, for a couple of weeks: good bye air conditioning, good bye smart phone, good bye hot showers; hello wood stoves, hello candles, hello unrefrigerated food.

Our electric, gas, water and sewer utilities face rising demand for services at a time when new construction costs are skyrocketing. The stakes are high to make wise investments replacing aging infrastructure while also satisfying the growing needs of South Carolina’s homes and businesses.

The range of options is wide — from investing in supply-side technologies that feed rising demand to improving efficiency of homes, businesses, and industry to reduce usage. Each choice carries its own set of economic, environmental, and operational attributes.

In South Carolina, our energy is provided by just a few utilities operating in exclusive service territories. The investor owned utilities, South Carolina Electric & Gas, Duke Energy and Progress Energy (now a part of Duke), are under the purview of the Public Service Commission (PSC). Meanwhile, Santee Cooper is governed by the “people of South Carolina” through a board of directors appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate.

The seven-member PSC functions as a “court” for regulatory and rate cases involving not only the generation of power from electricity and gas, but also water and sewer, oversight of taxis and charter buses and local phone service. The commission is charged with balancing the need for consumers to enjoy reliable services at fair rates with the need for corporate utilities to earn reasonable returns on their investments.

A separate state agency, the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) has investigative authority and is charged with representing the public’s interest. ORS is automatically included as a party in all PSC proceedings. Stakeholders, such as consumers, industrial customers and conservation organizations, may participate as interveners to provide additional data and perspectives on the case.

“uPowerSC” is a campaign encouraging citizens to pay attention to the PSC and to make their voices heard in the debate about powering South Carolina forward. As arbitrators, Public Service Commissioners carry a heavy responsibility. They deserve both our appreciation and our scrutiny.

Four of the seven Commission seats are up for election by the General Assembly; the other seats will be up in 2014. Applications for the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th congressional districts must be submitted before the close of business on Nov. 5. The position pays $102,382 annually; more information about the process is available at www.upowersc.com

South Carolina does not have a state-wide energy plan. Now that national energy policies are stalled, can we afford to lag further behind our sister states with investments in solar and wind? Are our utilities giving enough consideration to energy efficiency as an alternative to building new power plants? Will consumers have access to the low cost, homegrown power that they want? How will EPA regulations impact future decisions?

Predicting trends over the next several decades is risky but important business. We could wish for the proverbial crystal ball to see what will happen with coal and gas prices or solar, wind and nuclear construction costs or with consumer efficiency programs. A big challenge is South Carolina’s heavy reliance on coal, natural gas, and nuclear production. About 95 percent of our fuel for generation comes from out of state. That is billions of dollars for energy leaving South Carolina every year.

If you want clean drinking water or more homegrown energy, you have a stake in what happens at the Public Service Commission. Now is the time to plug in to the “uPowerSC” discussion to follow what happens at the PSC and to join “voices energizing South Carolina.”

Ann Timberlake is executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina; Ben Gregg is executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.