Thursday, May 30, 2024

New state utility regulator wants to reduce rates, introduce renewable mandates

by BIZ Magazine

By Terry L. Jones, Louisiana Illuminator

After defying the odds to become the first openly LGBTQ person elected to a statewide office, Davante Lewis intends to use the momentum to take on utility giants such as Entergy and move the state toward more renewable energy in his first six-year term on Louisiana’s Public Service Commission. 

Many see Lewis’ victory as a sign of shifting politics around renewable energy in a state where, traditionally, fossil fuels have ruled. 

“If you were to look on the surface, someone like Davante Lewis shouldn’t have had a prayer of a chance because he was taking on a long-term incumbent who had not demonstrated any electoral weakness in the past,” said John Couvillion, a Baton Rouge-based political pollster and president of JMC Analytics and Polling. 

All eyes are now on Lewis to prove whether he can follow through on campaign promises to lower customer utility bills and push the state toward greener energy sources on the conservative-leaning, five-member commission. 

“We’re looking for a balance between a company’s right to make a profit, which is respected by the courts, but also people’s right to live,” Lewis said after his first commission meeting in January. “You’re going to see me working with everybody. Everyone seems to be an ally, and the challenge is going to be keeping industry away from convincing us not to do what we should be doing.”

Pushing the state toward renewable energy is a top priority for Lewis, beginning with a Renewable Portfolio Standard – a policy requiring that utilities produce a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. Louisiana is one of 13 states without a RPS and produces less than 4% of its energy from renewable sources, one of the lowest amounts in the nation. About half the states without an RPS produce less than 10% of their energy from renewable sources. 

In 2009 when an RPS was last debated in Louisiana, the Public Service Commission deemed renewables too costly. The RPS was tabled and never brought up again. 

But the costs of solar and wind power dipped by as much as 88% between 2010 and 2021, while the price of offshore wind power declined by approximately 60% over the same time period, according to a 2022 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency. 

Foster Campbell, a Democratic commissioner who has been the sole voice calling out Entergy on its reliance on fossil fuels, thinks the tide has changed around the topic and that Lewis could scrounge up the votes he needs to get an RPS passed. 

“The world has changed a lot in the last five years,” Campbell said. “What’s popular today wasn’t popular then. I welcome someone 30 years old coming in to lead. He’s rigid in what he believes and energetic. That’s what the job needs.” 

Lewis is pushing for policies mirroring what other states have done, which outline a timeline for a transition to renewables, including mandates and penalties for utility companies that don’t comply with the standards. Texas’ RPS, established in 1999, set a goal of 10,000 megawatts of its electrical energy being produced through renewable sources by 2025, which the state has already achieved. 

“In Louisiana, companies like Entergy and Cleco aren’t really talking about renewables and they’re not being forced to,” Lewis said. Entergy has some renewables on its grid, with plans to triple that amount by 2025.

In a prepared statement, officials at Cleco said the company shares Lewis’ passion and commitment to renewables and looks forward to working with him on their “collective goals.”

“While we’ve always embraced sustainable business practices across the company, we’re accelerating efforts to protect the environment,” the statement read. 

Cleco is making efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 60% by 2030 with aspirations of net zero emissions by 2050, the statement said. Last year the company announced the construction of a solar farm on the site of a shuttered coal plant.

Entergy did not respond to inquiries for comment. 

At Lewis’ first commission meeting, he and Campbell voted against Entergy’s plan to pass on $1.4 billion in Hurricane Ida storm repairs and grid improvements to its customers. The remaining commissioners voted in favor of the plan. 

Commissioner Craig Greene’s spokesman said in an email that Greene is enjoying getting to know Lewis and learning what goals the two share. Commissioners Mike Francis and Eric Skrmetta did not respond to inquiries for comment on Lewis and his initiatives. 

Lewis’ other initiatives include pushing for laws to cap how much private companies can charge for phone calls made in prison. Louisiana is ranked 43rd in the nation when it comes to affordability of a 15-minute call from prison. Approximately 70%, roughly $3 million, of the revenue from calls made in 2016 go back to state prison systems, according to Prison Phone Justice, a national campaign spearheaded by the Human Rights Defense Center. 

He also wants to reduce the amount of late fees utility companies can charge customers. The Associated Press recently reported that utility companies in Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Florida and Maryland between 2011 and 2020 charged late fees that are three times the national average of $5.83 per customer.

“When we’re talking about high bills, we’re not talking just about the process of producing power,” Lewis said. He also wants to rewrite the commission’s ethics policies regarding campaign donations – specifically around donations from utility companies and industry insiders. 

All eyes are now on Lewis to fulfill the expectations of environmental advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club’s PAC, a nationwide grassroots political action group and one of several national groups that provided substantial backing to Lewis’ campaign. 

“People here pay a higher percentage of their incomes for energy, yet our PSC has repeatedly allowed energy companies to increase rates while at the same time enacting draconian measures to stifle renewables,” said Margie Vicknair-Pray, a projects coordinator for the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club.

This story was published in partnership with Floodlight, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action, and The Lens, the New Orleans area’s first nonprofit, nonpartisan public-interest newsroom, dedicated to unique investigative and explanatory journalism.

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