Shrugs Over High Court Decision

Immediate impact of greenhouse gas ruling on California seems minimal

The states' lawsuit was aimed originally at coal-fired power plants.

The silence is deafening since the US Supreme Court ruled this week that states can’t take utilities to court over greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on their own.

NPR’s reporting of the decision calls it “the court’s most important environmental ruling in years.”

But here in California, I’m seeing mainly tepid reaction from officials — and without the usual cavalcade of releases from industry and environmental groups, applauding or condemning. In response to an email inquiry I made after the ruling came out, Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, replied that the ruling:

“…re-affirms that EPA has the authority and responsibility to regulate greenhouse gas pollution in order to protect the public health and welfare from the urgent threat of climate change. The careful, deliberate approaches developed under the Clean Air Act – including California’s Clean Cars rule – provide a more reasonable and feasible alternative to the uncertainty of court-imposed limits on carbon pollution.”

California was one of six states involved in the case, which dates back to 2004. But that was before the EPA had taken definitive steps to assert its own regulation of greenhouse gases (a role upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007).

Air Board spokesman Stanley Young explained that California’s participation in the suit was “an effort by California to get some kind of national action on the climate front. Now that EPA is fully engaged, that kind of judicial action is no longer necessary.”

Just how “fully engaged” the Environmental Protection Agency is remains a matter of some debate. The federal agency recently postponed release of a draft rule on GHG emissions from power plants.

The full decision is available as a PDF download from the Supreme Court website.

The Backlash Against “SmartMeters”

A "SmartMeter" mounted on a Fresno home. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

A "SmartMeter" mounted on a Fresno home. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

The California Public Utilities Commission says it will name a consultant sometime this week to start testing PG&E digital “SmartMeters,” which customers have blamed for spikes in their utility bills.

The announcement came after state Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) held a press conference in Bakersfield to question why the CPUC hadn’t taken action. Last October, the Commission agreed to quickly hire an independent contractor to test the meters.
Florez got involved in the flap last year after some of his Central Valley constituents saw their bills triple with the new meters, even if customers bought energy saving appliances, or in some cases, when no one was living at the home. “The biggest savings recognized so far has been to PG&E, who were able to lay off numerous meter readers,” said Florez in a press release.

PG&E has blamed the higher bills on rate increases and hot weather (not a new phenomenon in the Central Valley, where people coddle their air conditioners as if they were household pets).

The Bakersfield Californian reported last month that the backlash here in the Central Valley is catching the attention of industry analysts and utilities nationwide, who want to avoid a spreading backlash against the new technology.

One of the groups sounding a warning is the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent consumer advocacy division of the CPUC. Last week, it advised the Commission to reject a Southern California Gas application to fund its own $1 billion smart meter program. DRA argued not that utility bills would spike with new digital meters, but that money could be better spent on energy efficiency measures and appliances. DRA says SoCalGas is overestimating how much customers will reduce their usage if they can see a digital display of how much energy they’re paying for.

Part of the concept behind smart meters is to help utilities with “demand response” strategies; providing timely feedback to customers, who can use their home computers to see exactly how and when they’re using power, customers might then alter their consumption patterns to avoid peak demand periods, and cut utility bills.

But some of that strategy has already backfired. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that a document PG&E filed with the CPUC says the advanced digital smart meters will let the company shut off power to more customers who fall behind on their bills, since they can do so without having to send a crew to a customer’s home. The meters may be smart but consumer advocates say it’s a dumb strategy that will make it easier for the utility giant to leave customers out in the cold.