Sunday, July 21, 2024

PSC proposal would unplug Louisiana utilities from components made by foreign adversaries

by BIZ Magazine

By Wes Muller, Louisiana Illuminator

It’s either a rushed but genuine attempt to solve a legitimate issue or part of a larger political strategy to oppose Louisiana’s transition to renewable energy. That’s how some people saw one of the agenda items at the Louisiana Public Service Commission meeting Wednesday. 

The proposed directive, authored by Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, R-Metairie, would immediately prohibit Louisiana’s electric utilities from using or including any foreign-produced components from China, Russia, North Korea or Iran.

Skrmetta, perhaps the most conservative PSC member, said his directive is necessary to protect the power grid from cybersecurity threats from “enemy states.” He suggested renewable energy systems are particularly vulnerable to attack, though he offered no evidence to support this. 

Commissioner Davante Lewis, one of the more liberal members, considers Skrmetta’s proposal an insidious attempt to prevent utilities from adopting renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.  

“If you are anti-renewable, link all of the parts to foreign adversaries and make it a security risk,” Lewis said in a phone call Thursday. “That’s clearly all this is. It’s a way to say, ‘You can’t trust wind, you can’t trust solar.’”

Skrmetta didn’t respond to a request for comment, but he made his argument clear during Wednesday’s meeting. 

“I think that it is important for the commission to show that we’re not in the business of supporting the potential risk of enemy states against the United States,” Skrmetta said.

Lewis took issue with Skrmetta’s attempt to place a far-reaching prohibition in a directive rather than a regular docket item, which typically allows for more advanced notice and invites public feedback.  

“I think if we really had some questions, we should do it in a process that allowed stakeholder feedback, that allows us to engage with the utilities,” Lewis said. “I think this is simply ‘big brother’ government.”

The commission’s lone swing vote member, Commissioner Craig Greene, R-Baton Rouge, also voiced skepticism about the proposal. Greene wanted to know what specific cybersecurity vulnerabilities exist in Louisiana’s grid and how the proposal would address them. He also wanted to know how the proposal might impact the cost of electricity for customers and how “components” should be defined.

Greene pointed out some components of iPhones are made in China, implying Skrmetta’s directive could potentially prohibit utility company employees from using iPhones at work. 

Logan Burke, executive director of the consumer advocate Alliance for Affordable Energy, echoed similar concerns in an interview. Utilities aren’t buying many parts from North Korea, Russia or Iran, she said. The real point of the proposal has to do with China. 

Electric utility systems could have many mundane parts made in China such as copper wires and plastic insulators that have no cyber vulnerability, but it’s well known that China has cornered a large chunk of the solar panel market, Burke said. 

“Where is the line drawn for what parts of the system are allowed and what are not?” Burke asked. “What we know is it would certainly impact the development of solar. We don’t know what else it would impact.”

Professor Terrence Chambers, a solar energy researcher and engineer at the University of  Louisiana-Lafayette, explained significant components of solar modules, such as the polycrystalline and silicon cells, are made in China but pose no cybersecurity risks because they don’t connect to computer systems. 

Solar cells, which are essentially the raw materials of a solar panel, can be imported to the United States and then assembled domestically without any risk. Power inverters, on the other hand, do connect to computer systems, Chambers said. They change the direct current (DC) electricity that solar power produces to alternating current (AC) for the power grid.  

When Greene’s long list of questions and concerns went largely unanswered at Wednesday’s meeting, he asked Skrmetta to defer his directive until next month. However, Skrmetta pushed back, saying the proposal should not be delayed.   

Skrmetta called on Entergy Louisiana CEO Phillip May to testify whether his company would have any problems with the directive. He was reluctant to give a definitive answer.

“I don’t believe I have a problem [with it],” May said. “At this time, I don’t know whether or not we’re in 100% compliance.”

After further debate, the commission decided to defer the proposal to next month’s meeting on Sept. 20. 

“I really hope in the future that if the commission is gonna issue directives like that, it does a lot more analysis first and does it in an open and transparent manner,” Burke said.

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