Energy Act Backers, Foes Square Off

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh stood atop a hill at the University of the District of Columbia recently and explained how a large solar panel and a two-story-high windmill there represent the city's future for going green.

"There's just no other way to go," Cheh (D-Ward 3) said from Power Hill. "We have to become energy efficient."

But the freshman council member met resistance yesterday at a hearing on her Clean and Affordable Energy Act, legislation meant to create a sustainable energy utility. The bill would gradually increase the amount of energy used from renewable resources, such as solar power, until reaching 20 percent by 2020.

Opponents, however, say the legislation would increase utility bills and should be retooled.

About 40 people testified yesterday, with environmentalists squaring off against utility companies and others opposed to the bill. Environmental groups praised the legislation, which would promote the installation of solar panels and energy-efficient appliances. Pepco, Washington Gas and the D.C. Apartment and Office Building Association said Cheh's plan is too costly.

People's Counsel Elizabeth A. Noel, who represents utility consumers, said the cost to customers would be $26 million annually. She said Cheh should consider the immediate effect on residents who are struggling to pay rising bills and consider funding the effort through other means. "It is very easy to be cavalier with somebody else's money," Noel said.

Pepco Region, which serves customers in the District and in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, has offered energy-reduction initiatives that are before the D.C. Public Service Commission for approval, said Thomas H. Graham, president of the regional utility.

In "Pepco's Blueprint for the Future," a document Graham provided to the committee, the company estimated that customers would pay $14 more a month. The bill, Pepco said, would require the city to increase energy surcharges and would take money from a program that helps low-income residents pay bills. The city would issue $100 million in bonds to support the legislation.

The legislation does not pass the repayment of the bond to consumers, Cheh said, and her office estimates that additional costs would be much lower, though her staff was not specific. Cheh also said bills would decrease in the long run when customers are using less energy.

Patty Rose, executive director of GreenHOME, a nonprofit group that promotes green building in affordable housing, said arguments about costs are shortsighted. "You need to make some upfront investments, but they are pretty manageable," she said in an interview.

Graham recommended abandoning the idea of a separate sustainable energy utility and instead allowing Pepco to do the job. "Pepco has unmatched expertise in energy delivery, energy conservation and system adequacy and reliability," he said.

Cheh asked what kind of experience an electric company has in handling gas, solar energy and other sources.

Only a few states, including Delaware and Vermont, have adopted similar legislation. Delaware state Sen. Harris McDowell III (D) testified that he received pushback when he proposed a bill two years ago. Other state legislators "gave me a funny look," he said.

But McDowell said only one state senator voted against the measure, which was approved last year. "One by one, we really won them over," he said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company