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Environmentalists fear utility will be exempt from efficiency requirement

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PHOENIX – Environmentalists fear that the Arizona Corporation Commission may waive its stringent energy efficiency standards rather than approve a power-cutting plan submitted by Tucson Electric Power and scheduled for a vote Friday.

TEP submitted its first implementation plan on Jan. 31, 2011, after the commission finalized a new set of energy efficiency standards in 2010 that required utilities to reduce their power sales by 22 percent by the year 2020.

Since then, TEP’s plan has been overhauled once and the commission’s vote delayed multiple times, said Diane Brown, executive director of environmental group Arizona PIRG.

Brown said she’s concerned about the vote of Commissioner Brenda Burns, who has publicly questioned some of the energy efficiency policies adopted by previous commissions.

“We are concerned she may offer an amendment to allow utilities to seek a waver from the energy efficiency standards if they feel like they may not be able to meet the standards,” Brown said.

Burns is the only commissioner who didn’t serve during the unanimous 2010 vote to adopt the new energy efficiency standards, created to help homeowners and businesses save money and help utilities cut back on the development of expensive power plants.

Neither Burns nor representatives of TEP responded to phone message seeking comment.

In order to meet the state’s new standards, utility companies were required to submit implementation plans detailing how they would create or expand programs for ratepayers, such as appliance-recycling services, home-efficiency audits or subsidizing consumers’ purchases of low-power lightbulbs.

In its first plan submission, TEP offered two different options, said Jeff Schlegel, Arizona representative for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, a group instrumental in getting the new state standards approved.

“The first option said, ‘Yes, we will continue to offer and expand energy efficient offerings to lower their bills. But you need to give us some financial remuneration for the energy we’re losing,” Schlegel said.

The second option was a waiver from the standard. The group, opposing a waiver but fearing rejection of the first plan, offered to work with the company to develop a compromise.

The new plan takes the first option and lowers the budget for proposed energy-efficiency programs, thereby reducing the money that TEP is requesting from the commission, Schlegel said.

“The commissioners have generally been in favor of it because they see the benefits of giving people the opportunity to reduce their utility bills,” he said. “That said, there have been some concerns about how fast the programs have been ramping up. There are also concerns from the company that when they save this much energy, they don’t make as much money.”

Ultimately, the Corporation Commission is responsible for finding a balance between the interest of the companies and the customers, Schlegel said.

Hopefully, Brown said, that balance will include a place for the environment.

“Energy efficiency is undeniably the cheapest, cleanest and quickest way to meet our state’s energy needs,” Brown said. “We should be moving forward, not backward.”