Who is the Renewable Power Policy “Playground Bully”?

Michael Giberson

According to a poll by Fallon Research, “Nearly 60% [of Ohio voters] would pay an extra $3 a month on a $100 dollar energy bill to support the development of electricity from clean sources.” It is an interesting factoid, I suppose. My initial response is to wonder whether state electric power regulations in Ohio somehow prohibit Ohio voters who are so inclined from buying “electricity from clean sources.” If so, the regulations should be revised so that consumers have the opportunity to buy the kind of electric power they want.

Heather Taylor-Miesle, of the NRDC Action Fund, apparently thinks differently. She reads the survey results and thinks, “Great, this is a good reason for state regulators to force everybody to buy clean-sourced electricity, including the more than 40 percent who said they didn’t want to pay as much as 3 percent extra for clean-sourced electricity.”

Can we imagine polling Ohioans on whether they support the Cincinnati Bengals or the Cleveland Browns, and then having state regulators require every consumer buy a T-shirt from the majority-favored team? Why should electricity policy involve state-mandated purchases?

Granted, electric power production involves environmental harms and we might find state and federal policies useful in addressing these harms. But renewable-power purchase mandates are a inefficient way to pursue environmental goals. Granted also, there may well be positive information spillovers from research and development of less-polluting technologies. Renewable-power purchase mandates are an especially ineffective way of promoting the growth and spread of knowledge.

The main point of Taylor-Miesle’s Huffington Post piece was to suggest the conservative, pro-market policy group ALEC was playing the “playground bully” by advocating repeal of state renewable power purchase mandates. I find the suggestion hilariously backward.

So far as I have seen reported in the press, ALEC isn’t out threatening violence for state legislators who refuse to comply with ALEC’s wishes. So far as I know, ALEC operates mostly by distributing policy papers and hosting conferences where people talk a lot. I’ve never heard of a playground bully hosting a public policy conference.

Of course the policy that Taylor-Miesle favors is a policy of coercion: state renewable power purchase mandates simply require electric power retailers to purchase some fraction of their power from government-approved “clean sources.” Should a utility fail to comply, the state will impose penalties. Should a utility fail to pay, the state will seize money in the utility’s bank accounts. If that doesn’t work, the state eventually will close the utility down.

The state is the bully here. Taylor-Miesle is like that kid on the playground hiding behind the bully, egging him on. ALEC, on the other hand, wants to reduce the bully’s reach a little bit.

5 thoughts on “Who is the Renewable Power Policy “Playground Bully”?

  1. I think this is a bit unbalanced. Agree that RPSs are just another version of regulators telling LSEs what to buy (and so forcing us to buy it). On the other hand, what ALEC is really arguing for is not a level playing field (where incumbent technologies would pay the full price of the various health and climate hazards they create) but rather a return to the status quo where those technologies pay none of those costs and renewables get none of the advantages they have today.

    Finally, your statements about renewable purchase mandates in the penultimate paragraph are very wide of the mark. The term “mandate” is a serious stretch in this context. Should utilities fail to procure some amount of power, they are typically assessed a fee, which can be waived at PUC discretion if the utility made best efforts. You can imagine how that discussion usually ends up going. Also, most RPSs have cost caps – if the utility can’t meet the RPS for less than the specified cost, they don’t have to. There is no prospect of shutting a utility down. Reliability is king.

  2. The positive responses to polls such as the Fallon poll discussed above are typically 3-4 times more positive than the ultimate consumer purchase decisions, when those decisions are not coerced.

  3. I agree with Micheal Wara. You could just as easily argue that the regulator is being a bully by insisting that Ohioans pay for electricity from “cheap” coal that also ruins their health because of the pollution.

    So regulatora are always bullies… the only thing that changes is who is hiding behind them egging them on.

  4. True, regulators are always (at least potentially being) a bully in the sense that, ultimately, their policies have recourse to the coercive power of government. I suppose we might observe that the whole point of having a government is so that there is an entity available to “be the bully” in cases in which we think certain choices need to be imposed on society. We want private individuals and privately organized groups to impose their choices only in limited spheres, and when we decide we need to impose decisions more broadly we take recourse to governments. Or, to put the matter another way, “being the bully” is what we have government for.

    Except, of course, government is supposed to be a bully limited in scope and under the direction of the rest of us.

    And I’d further suppose one only begins the name-calling (i.e. “playground bully”} when there is a dispute–as with RPS policies–about whether the government should or shouldn’t pursue particular actions.

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