Sparks fly over Indiana energy efficiency programs

2014-02-25T15:30:00Z 2014-02-26T13:05:12Z Sparks fly over Indiana energy efficiency programsBy Keith Benman, (219) 933-3326

The Indiana House approved Tuesday an amendment to a Senate bill that could significantly change the trajectory of Indiana's energy efficiency programs, which are popular with customers of NIPSCO and other utilities.

Amendment proponents said the House action merely hits the "pause button" on the state's core energy efficiency program, while opponents say it sticks a dagger through its heart. The bill in amended form must now be passed by the House and then go back to the Senate.

Indiana Energy Association Vice President Mark Maassel said the House acted to give regulators and utilities more time to study the effectiveness of the state's energy efficiency efforts, which were projected to rapidly increase in cost in the next five years.

"This is not the General Assembly saying stop energy efficiency in Indiana," Maassel said.

The Sierra Club, an opponent of the original bill that passed the Senate on a 37-11 vote, said the new House amendment would essentially "gut" the state's energy efficiency effort.

"Today's decision by the Indiana House of Representatives will roll back a proven winner, put energy efficiency workers out of their jobs, and threaten to raise electricity bills for all Hoosiers," said Jodi Perras, Indiana representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

The bill as passed by the Senate would have allowed large industrial and commercial customers to stop paying customer surcharges that pay for the programs, saving them from 1 percent to 3 percent on electric bills, according to proponents.

The bill as amended in the House prevents the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission from replacing expiring contracts for Energizing Indiana, which provides home energy audits, a light-bulb replacement program and others. The commission has been preparing to enter into new five-year contracts for the program.

The Senate bill as amended in the House appears to throw responsibility for the energy-efficiency programs back to utilities.

NIPSCO has touted the energy efficiency programs for its customers for the past two years through a broad-based advertising campaign. The NIPSCO program  includes rebates on energy saving appliances, appliance pickups and home weatherization. The utility also promotes the Energizing Indiana effort.

NIPSCO also has concerns about the increasing costs of the energy efficiency programs, said NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer. NIPSCO residential customers currently pay a monthly surcharge of $2.68 for the programs.

"We support energy efficiency programs that would provide benefits for consumers, but we want to make sure they are done in a cost-effective way and don't put a burden on customers," Meyer said.

NIPSCO and others were still assessing the impact of the House bill on Tuesday. Although utilities have for a decade or more offered limited energy efficiency programs, the broad-based effort that included Energizing Indiana came about as the result of almost a decade of effort by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

Consumer groups were not hopeful about the future of the effort on Tuesday.

"The conversation has shifted from 'Lets get some rate relief for Indiana job creators' to killing energy efficiency programs altogether," said Citizens Action Coalition Executive Director Kerwin Olson.

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