Where is energy’s cell phone?

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By Elisa Wood

June 4, 2009

Electric industry restructuring often gets criticized for failing to deliver the goods. It was supposed to not only drive down rates, but also spark innovative new technologies.  After all, deregulation of the telecommunications industry gave us the cell phone. Where is energy’s nifty gadget?

Initiated more than a decade ago, electric deregulation has produced no such consumer hit. But it has led to innovation, albeit more complex and less tangible than the cell phone. For an example, listen to Lisa Cohn’s podcast: “How states can best use energy efficiency stimulus money” with Mark Sinclair of the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA) http://www.realwriters.net/rew/rtlnkmr.htm.

Sinclair describes how a dozen or more states have served as laboratories over the last decade, laying the groundwork for today’s federal push to advance clean energy as a jobs builder. What got these states started? It turns out it was restructuring. CESA’s founder, Lew Milford, was an early advocate of restructuring and instrumental in the creation of rules in key states. He saw restructuring as an opportunity to open the door for development of clean energy, then largely a fringe resource. Milford pushed for a special utility rate structure, a systems benefit charge, that would channel funds into laboratory-like exploration at the state level.

Much of clean energy’s progress in the marketplace is due to these state programs:  “People tend to think somehow that these projects have appeared magically and that’s not the case… states have spent a significant amount of money putting dollars on the ground and then leveraging private capital to make those projects,” Milford says in an interview with E&E TV http://www.cleanenergystates.org/press/Milford_OnPoint-1.14.09_text.pdf.

Those states now offer specific templates for building clean energy economies that others can follow as they receive federal stimulus dollars. The clean energy states have tested rebates, grants and loans to stimulate markets. They’ve seen where poor regulation slows installations. They know what attracts clean energy companies and what drives them away.

By studying the work of experienced states, those new to clean energy can bypass years of experimentation.  So there lies an example of innovation from electric industry restructuring. Restructuring provided a mechanism for states to experiment with clean energy. Now, these pioneering efforts will save a lot of time and money for the states that are new to clean energy and find themselves with little time to ramp up the industry and attract jobs. True, electric restructuring did not produce a gadget that you can hold in your hand; instead it produced a clean energy roadmap, one that by many accounts could help create a lot of economic activity at time when it is most needed.

Visit Elisa Wood at www.realenergywriters.com and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.