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COMMENTARY: SWIFT ACTION CAN HELP EASE ENERGY PRICE PAIN By Luke Metzger Print E-mail
by Special to DallasBlog.com    Fri, Oct 28, 2005, 05:35 PM

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TexPIRG Advocate Luke Metzger
Texans, hold on to your wallets. We've spent the last few months suffering under the weight of $3 a gallon gasoline prices. Today, the PUC approved a24% increase in electric rates for TXU customers. And as the winter draws closer, many of us will soon face an even bigger potential economic wallop: rising home heating prices.

The numbers are sobering. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that homeowners will see home heating bills rise 51 percent in Texas. And that's compared to last year's already-high prices. A colder-than-predicted winter or a slower-than-expected recovery from this year's hurricane season could make even these predictions seem rosy.

Rising energy prices threaten to leave many families struggling to make ends meet. And this winter, 391,000 low-income households will no longer receive a 10% rate discount on their electric bills that might have provided some cushion to the blow. This thanks to the Legislature's raid on the electric industry system benefit fund - a fund created in 2002 for billing assistance
and weatherization programs for poor, elderly and disabled Texans – to balance the state budget instead. And the entire economy could be hurt if consumers find themselves with less disposable income to spend.

Today's energy crisis isn't just the result of a freak hurricane season. Rather, it's the result of decades of bad federal energy policy that have left us over-reliant on fossil fuels and other dangerous and unstable sources of energy. Even before this year's hurricanes, booming demand for oil and natural gas left suppliers unable to keep up --- and prices heading through the roof. And federal energy legislation enacted this summer didn't help, lavishing billions of dollars in giveaways on the oil industry while doing little to improve the energy efficiency of homes and vehicles.
Until we address our over-reliance on unstable energy sources, we can get used to more crises like this one. Texans increasingly realize this; that's why many of us are buying more-efficient cars, driving less and being more careful about how we use energy at home.

But if we want to ease the pain of higher energy prices this winter, we have a lot of work to do. And we need to do it fast.

Now is the time for Gov. Rick Perry to launch an all-hands-on-deck emergency effort to promote energy efficiency and conservation in order to reduce demand for energy this winter. His executive order yesterday directing state agencies to develop conservation plans is a good first start. This will save the state money and serve as a good example of the kinds of things all of us can do to reduce energy use. Unfortunately, his order to 'streamline' the permitting of new coal-fired power plants are a major step in the wrong direction and will just mean less public involvement and more air pollution.

The months between now and the peak of winter give us enough time to improve the energy efficiency of thousands of homes and businesses. The state should acquire, and distribute for free, inexpensive yet effective technologies for reducing home energy consumption, including compact fluorescent light bulbs, low-flow showerheads, pipe wraps and water heater blankets. We should adopt a one-day sales tax holiday for weatherization supplies and Energy Star-rated appliances. And the PUC should deny any proposed rate increases, like that just approved for TXU, unless investments in energy efficiency programs are dramatically increased.

What else can be done? In 2001, California, facing a summer of possible rolling blackouts, launched an ambitious program to promote energy efficiency and conservation. For example, the state gave 20 percent bill reductions to customers who cut energy use by 20 percent. It also allocated $800 million in emergency efficiency and conservation spending from the state's general fund.

California cut its electricity consumption by more than 6 percent in a single year. There is no reason a similar program couldn't be just as successful in saving natural gas.

It won't bring natural gas or oil prices back down to where they were a year ago, or a month ago. But it will ease the pain of what threatens to be a very tough winter. And once winter is over and the immediate crisis has eased, we need to make sure to keep up the effort. Improved energy-efficiency standards for appliances and homes, coupled with a sustained financial investment in
energy efficiency, can keep a lid on energy demand and save consumers money.

With continued investments in clean, renewable sources of energy and clean forms of locally generated power, Texas could put itself on the road to a more sustainable energy future in which the kind of price spikes and supply disruptions we've seen recently will become just a bad memory.
A better and more stable energy future is possible --- if we get to work. And with a winter of high electric and heating bills on the horizon, there's no better time to start than now.

Luke Metzger is the Public Advocate for the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG) headquartered in Austin.

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