Maryland is facing an unprecedented threat to its clean energy future. EmPOWER Maryland, the statewide compilation of energy efficiency programs, is under unexpected and mystifying attack, despite notable, nationally recognized success in achieving energy-savings goals.
And without the continuation of effective EmPOWER programs, Marylanders will pay more to achieve the state's bold new carbon pollution reduction target signed into law by Governor Larry Hogan this year—cutting pollution by 40 percent by 2030. Marylanders will also pay more for electricity if the least-cost way to meet the state's electricity needs—energy efficiency—is limited.
First, the good news: EmPOWER Maryland is working really well. And Maryland's Public Service Commission has directed its electric utilities to continue operating and expanding energy efficiency programs that help people like you and me to get control over our energy bills, such as those offered by BGE (Baltimore Gas and Electric) in the Baltimore region and Pepco in the D.C. region. These are programs like discounts for efficient lighting and rebates for ENERGY STAR® appliances and heating or cooling equipment. About 2 million Marylanders have taken advantage of one (or more) of these programs since they began in 2008: it's clear that saving money and saving energy are important to state residents.
Overall, Maryland will end up saving electricity at the clip of 2 percent a year, with complementary goals under consideration for natural gas savings and low-income energy efficiency program increases (provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development, our state housing agency). Programs targeted at low-income Marylanders are especially important because energy costs impose a particularly heavy burden on those with modest household incomes, as noted in the American Council for an Energy- Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All's recent analysis for Baltimore and other cities. The services delivered to low-income customers are especially important to people like this eastern shore resident (video courtesy of the National Housing Trust):
No wonder EmPOWER Maryland has received praise here as well as in a respected national ranking of energy efficiency policies. Also no surprise that it's popular, as confirmed by a recent statewide survey showing more than 8 in 10 Marylanders support it.
An astonishing attack
So it's stunning that the state energy office, the Maryland Energy Administration—which up until a few months ago was a strong supporter of EmPOWER Maryland—recently attacked the program. (This astonishing assault was led by a new agency head, who in another twist just resigned her position.) Specifically, the agency filed a letter urging the Public Service Commission (PSC) to reverse course on energy efficiency by denying utility plans to meet the needs of customers who have already expressed interest in participating in EmPOWER programs.
Among the unsubstantiated claims made in the short letter taking and explaining this new position: "All Marylanders are paying much more for electricity to fund programs designed to help a few use less of it." My organization requested data backing this and a slew of other claims about EmPOWER but as you can see from the follow-up letter filed by NRDC with the Maryland PSC, we got nothing!
However, the Maryland Energy Administration's rhetoric is easily refuted. First of all, a lot of Marylanders engage (or want to engage) in energy efficiency, according to actual research: a statewide survey that shows 86 percent have installed more efficient light bulbs, 61 percent installed efficient home appliances, and 53 percent sealed air leaks.
Marylanders are paying lower electricity bills
And it's simply, blatantly false that Maryland's electricity costs have gone up since EmPOWER Maryland was put in place. Energy rates—the amount charged per kilowatt-hour of electricity or therm of natural gas—will go up and down for a variety of factors, ranging from everything from utility investments to the weather. But Marylanders care more about their bills—the amount that comes out of their wallets—not kilowatt-hour rates. In addition, saving electricity through energy efficiency puts downward pressure on rates in the long term. This is simple supply-and-demand economics: when the demand for energy decreases, the price also decreases. Energy efficiency programs also increases customers' control over their utility costs by providing tools that enable smarter energy use―and using less energy is the single most effective way to not only reduce bills, but also to decrease the amount of carbon pollution emitted by fossil fuel-burning power plants.
In fact our analysis shows that for May of 2016, a BGE customer who used 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month paid about $10 less than in September of 2008. For those in the Pepco region, the bill was about $6 less. In other words: During EmPOWER's life span the average Marylander's bills have shrunk (and this includes the modest surcharge which supports statewide energy-efficiency investments under EmPOWER).
The simple truth is that Maryland is building a bright energy future thanks to a solid state policy framework, a suite of useful energy efficiency services provided by utilities such as BGE and many small businesses, and the activities of many Marylanders.
Attacking a key pillar of that clean energy future—reducing energy use through programs that cost far less than generating electricity from other resources like coal and natural gas—is wrongheaded and destructive. Unfortunately another assault on energy efficiency was mounted within the hearing room of the Public Service Commission—by a new commissioner, no less. I'll turn to that tale in my next blog entry this week. Stay tuned!