Report: Maryland falling short on energy-saving goals

PIRG says mismanagement by regulators led to slow progress

March 30, 2011|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland will fall far short of meeting its goal to reduce energy consumption 15 percent by 2015 if state regulators and officials don't take aggressive action, according to an analysis by a nonprofit consumer group.

Gov. Martin O'Malley outlined the goal to reduce per-capita electricity use in his first term, as utility bills were soaring and the state faced the possibility of rolling blackouts in the coming years. But according to the consumer advocacy group Maryland PIRG, three years later the state is on target to fail to meet even half that goal.

And the fault lies with the Maryland Public Service Commission, the state's top energy regulator and an independent agency headed by O'Malley appointees, according to Maryland PIRG. The agency has done a poor job of managing the development of energy-efficiency programs by the utilities, the group said.

"The mismanagement on the part of the PSC is a large reason why the utilities are not on track," said Johanna Neumann, PIRG's state director.

PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian said he could not comment on the findings because the programs are the subject of continuing cases before the commission. The commission will hear testimony on the utilities' progress at a hearing Thursday.

The Empower Maryland Energy Efficiency Act of 2008 called for the state's five largest utilities to implement programs aimed at reducing customer consumption by 10 percent. The remaining 5 percent reduction was to come from setting appliance standards and through federal programs.

O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said that consumers have benefited even if the state doesn't meet its goal. According to the PIRG report, consumers will spend $60 million less on electricity as a result of efficiency steps taken by more than 150,000 residents through energy conservation programs.

"The governor, since his days as mayor, has a long history of setting very ambitious goals and holding those responsible for meeting goals accountable and will continue to do so," Adamec said.

The utilities so far have rolled out discounts for compact fluorescent light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances as well as rebates for home improvements and upgrades to heating and cooling systems — all paid for through surcharges on customer bills.

But other programs have been stalled by lengthy reviews by the Maryland Public Service Commission, according to Maryland PIRG. Moreover, once the agency approved plans, it did not compel utilities to implement them right away. The last program to be approved was not under way until the second quarter of 2010, Neumann said.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Maryland's largest utility, is on track to meet the 2015 goals for reducing peak demand — when power is most costly for utilities, such as on hot summer days.

At the current rate of energy conservation, BGE will reach only 48 percent of the overall savings goal by 2015, and on average the five utilities are at 46 percent, according to Maryland PIRG's report.

Adamec defended the PSC's pace of approving utility programs. "It's the PSC's job to very carefully and deliberately evaluate new programs related to energy," he said.

Neumann said other state officials need to do more. The state decreased funding for energy-efficiency programs between 2009 and 2011, redirecting that cash toward utility bill assistance for low-income customers.

Despite the slow progress, Neumann said that the Empower Maryland goals are still attainable. The report calls for better enforcement of deadlines and conservation targets and coordinating programs statewide to ease consumer confusion over what's available.

"It's going to take aggressive action on the part of the PSC," she said. "They need to set aggressive goals and ask utilities to meet them."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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