One member of the state Public Utilities Commission voted Tuesday against the energy-efficiency programs of a gas and electric utility.
A second member cast the decisive vote in the 2-1 decision for their approval but said she might be on the opposite side, too, next time.
The “no” vote by commissioner Chris Nelson and the hedge by commissioner Kristie Fiegen signals a major change starting to take shape on South Dakota’s utility regulatory board.
Current policy allows utilities to charge extra amounts to their ratepayers for energy efficiency programs. The utilities use the proceeds to pay for incentives intended to help persuade customers to invest in new equipment and insulation to reduce energy consumption.
The changes range from furnaces, heat pumps and water heaters to variable-speed fan motors and low-flow shower heads.
MidAmerican Energy Company started its energy efficiency programs in 2009. The PUC approved the company’s updated plans Tuesday, but the occasion sparked a philosophical debate among commission members.
Nelson used one category as an example.
“We’re asking 830 to pay for one person’s improvements. Some of those 830 may be competitors who are paying for one’s improvements,” Nelson said.
He said the PUC during legislative session opposed net metering, where people generate electricity through solar panels and wind turbines and sell the power to utilities because all other ratepayers pay more to benefit those independent producers.
“And we said that was wrong,” Nelson said.
He said energy-efficiency programs are doing the same thing. He acknowledged the numbers show it was probably valuable but a line needs to be drawn.
Commission chairman Gary Hanson agreed net metering increases everyone’s costs but there isn’t an opportunity for everyone to participate by building solar panels or putting up wind turbines to feed back into the electricity grid.
Hanson said energy-efficiency programs are open to broad participation.
Fiegen said she can see both of their sides.
“Next time, I may be a lot tougher,” she said.
“It’s hard for me to vote for something that ratepayers all have to pay and they don’t all benefit. I’m willing to give it a test, but next time it might not be so easy,” she said.
Nelson and Fiegen were appointed to vacancies on the commission in the past two years. They each won election in November.
Nelson added that he can understand if company officials get frustrated if the commission changes its philosophy.