Are you unknowingly funding the utility industry’s anti-renewables agenda?

Many utilities belong to trade groups that promote dirty energy over clean — and the utilities raise electricity rates to cover the cost of membership dues.
By Meghan Nutting

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steam from coal power plant
(Sebastian Willnow/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Meghan Nutting is the executive vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Sunnova Energy International. The views expressed here are her own and not those of Sunnova or Canary Media.

Electricity rates across the country have increased by about 15% over the last decade or so, and in some places by as much as 40%. While many Americans struggle to pay their electricity bills, utilities continue to request rate increases. Some of these increases are driven in part by utilities forcing customers to subsidize dues for trade associations that obstruct our country’s shift to renewable energy.

Right now, many utilities are allowed to use the money they collect from you via your electricity bills to fund trade groups that defend fossil-fuel energy and try to limit your access to rooftop solar energy.

And these aren’t cheap trade association dues. Between 2015 and 2018, for example, Florida Power & Light expected to charge its customers more than $9.5 million to pay dues to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), according to the utility’s filed rate request.

EEI, the chief trade group for investor-owned utilities, puts out annual reports to its members that detail the results” it has achieved. Those include undermining policies supportive of distributed renewable energy resources, as well as advocacy on increasing fixed and demand charges in various states, which can make bills higher for customers. One accomplishment EEI listed was that it advocated that coal ash be regulated as non-hazardous.”

EEI has also touted the fact that it launched a multi-faceted industry-wide campaign calling for net metering updates in the states” — and by updates,” it means making net-metering policies less beneficial to homeowners who have installed solar panels. EEI and other industry associations have attacked net metering and other policies that support distributed energy resources like rooftop solar. This advocacy is not only contrary to the interests of customers who have or want distributed energy resources, but it also ignores the ways that rooftop solar benefits everyone by increasing resiliency and reliability and avoiding air pollution and climate-warming carbon emissions.

In 2015, when utility Ameren Missouri was trying to make the case to the state’s Public Service Commission that it should be allowed to raise rates, PSC staff commented that membership in EEI appears to primarily benefit the Company and its shareholders.” They then recommended that all dues be disallowed. The Arizona Residential Utility Consumer Office questioned the value of trade association memberships in comments on one of Arizona Public Service’s rate cases: These groups represent the interest of electric generators…and may not be necessary for the provision of utility services.” The Minnesota Office of Attorney General recommended that consumers not pay for EEI dues because EEI is primarily a lobbying organization.

Kentucky regulators are the latest to take action on this front. They recently asked Louisville Gas & Electric (LG&E) for details on how its EEI dues are spent. LG&E asked EEI to give it a list and EEI wrote back a stunning letter saying that it doesn’t keep track of how much it spends on non-lobbying activity like litigation and regulatory efforts. Because EEI seems to believe it has no obligation to inform its members of how customer dollars are being spent, Kentucky regulators this summer denied LG&E’s request to have customers cover the cost of EEI dues. This is how it should be done.

So how do we fix the problem on a nationwide scale? The Center for Biological Diversity has submitted a petition to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asking it to classify industry association dues for utilities as something that utilities have to proactively ask regulators to approve, rather than something that is approved automatically. We at Sunnova Energy International have filed comments in support of that petition. So have more than a hundred other groups including the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and the Nevada Attorney General’s Office.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s petition would not prohibit utilities from recovering any industry association dues. It would simply place the burden on utilities and their trade groups to demonstrate that dues money is being spent in the best interest of customers. If they can’t or don’t disclose enough details for regulators to evaluate how dues are being spent, then the cost would not be passed on to customers through their electric bills.

Right now, you may be funding a utility industry political agenda that is at odds with a stable climate and a clean energy future. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the opportunity to change that.

Meghan Nutting is the executive vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Sunnova Energy International, a residential solar company.