Preemptive “Mediation” at Energy Conference in Helena, Montana

By Britt Ide for EDR Blog.org

Energy issues are complex and controversial.  They have many local, regional and national stakeholders with divergent viewpoints.  Building relationships early can help reduce conflict.  As a mediator, I enjoy helping foster discussions between important energy players before conflict arises.  Last month, at a Helena conference, I moderated a panel on the Challenges and Opportunities for Increasing Energy Efficiency in the Northwest.  Our panel included diverse perspectives:  Ralph Cavanagh, Senior Attorney and Energy Co-Director, Natural Resources Defense Council; Travis Kavulla, Commissioner, Montana Public Service Commission; Jim Morton, Executive Director, Human Resource Council District XI; and Bill Thomas, Regulatory Support Services Manager, NorthWestern Energy.

The discussion was lively but productive.  Issues ranged from how to quantify helping low-income households and other non-energy benefits, challenges of elected Commissioners, the possibility of the utility “death spiral” and more. Perspectives included increasing efficiency programs to benefit the environment and climate change; helping reduce energy costs for low income households; concern about policy on wealth transfers and policy decisions when requiring all utility customers to pay for efficiency programs; and the role of government.  The “death spiral” concern was especially engaging:  some utilities fear that declining energy usage from energy efficiency (and other factors) will reduce their income and not allow them to pay for the infrastructure required of a regulated monopoly.  Most panelists agreed that the “death spiral” fear is overblown especially with “decoupling” policies that utility commissions can use (some states already do) to decouple a utility’s earnings from its energy sales.  The panel agreed though that traditional utility models will face drastic change with distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar), smart grid, and proposed climate change regulation.

The large audience from across the Northwest was engaged and reported positively on the panel discussion.  Many thanks to the Northwest Energy Coalition for organizing these semi-annual conferences to get energy stakeholders talking.  Building these discussions and relationships eases resolution of future conflicts.

Britt_IdeBritt Ide, President of Ide Law & Strategy, in Boise, Idaho and Bozeman, Montana consults on energy issues and policy. Her mediation practice focuses on upstream solutions.  Britt is an engineer and a graduate of the SJ Quinney College of Law.