President Obama is counting on the growth of renewable energy and energy conservation in the U.S. to help meet his ambitious new greenhouse gas reduction target.
Florida just made more difficult — and it's only the most recent state to do so.
In a 3-2 vote, the Florida Public Service Commission decided Tuesday to slash energy efficiency requirements for Florida's four investor-owned utilities. They also said utilities could end their pilot solar programs at the end of next year.
The utilities have complained that the requirements were raising costs for customers. They argued that as fuel costs have declined, it is actually now more expensive to try to reduce generation than it is to keep existing plants running.
But Martin Kushler, a senior fellow with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), says that is unlikely to be true, since most studies show energy conservation almost always reduces costs for consumers.
Instead, he argued, utilities themselves are facing increasing costs pressures as demand has declined — and are successfully capitalizing on the current anti-government mood in some statehouses.
"What’s really going in is more in the nature of a political decision quite frankly," he said. "A number of states are now in control of folks who tend to be opposed to what they refer to as mandates."
The Florida decision follows a decision in Wisconsin earlier this month that eliminated the pricing benefit enjoyed by solar energy and other users who have worked to cut their electricity use.
Instead of charging customers based on how much electricity they use, Milwaukee-based utility We Energies will now be able to charge a higher flat monthly rate that customers will have to pay no matter how much power they consume.
"Now there are even more barriers for people who want to put solar panels or other renewable systems in their homes," said Tyler Huebner, head of RENEW Wisconsin. "Given the overall landscape of a changing utility sector and the need for clean power plants, this is not going to help us cost effectively meet those [emissions reductions targets].
Across the country, utilities and industrial power users have been submitting proposals targeting state policies designed to reduce electricity use, and make fuel consumption greener. While many have been defeated, the utilities are not even close to giving up.
Earlier this year, Indiana and Ohio passed bills undercutting efficiency and green energy requirements.
Mike Foley, a Democrat in Ohio's state house of representatives, called his state's measure "the worst, the most self-destructive bill” he ever had to vote on. In an op-ed this past September, he warned that the group tasked with studying the feasibility of renewable energy goals was already being stacked with members favorable to utilities.
In Connecticut, the state's utility authority is considering a request from one of its largest utilities, CP&L, for a rate increase rate like the one in Wisconsin. And in Arizona, state officials are considering allowing utilities to set their own efficiency goals based on whether it would be cost effective to them. The statewide efficiency requirement enacted just four years ago would be eliminated.
In that case, a group called Arizonans for Electric Choice and Competition that represents large companies such as Walmart and mining company Freeport-McMoRan Inc support the proposal, according to the Arizona Republic's Ryan Randazzo.
And according to The Connecticut Monitor's Keith Phaneuf, 80 state and federal lawmakers have protested the fee increase.
“[The state] must reject this unconscionable and unacceptable increase in CL&P’s fixed rate charge, and go a step further,” wrote U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. “It must reduce the current charge itself.”
ELPC attorney Rob Kelter said any successful proposals would immediately translate into higher fossil fuel use.
"When you discourage customers from doing energy efficiency, you're 'backdooring' coal," he said. "You're helping coal-fired power plants, and that’s what a lot of this is about. It’s about utilities that make money from capital investment and building coal plants."
We Energies runs five coal plants. Just a week ago, Wisconsin's Public Service Commission, which approved the rate hike, okayed a similar one for Green Bay-based WPSC. That company operates four coal plants.
Earlier this year, 12 states opened a third, more direct front on the Obama administration, suing the EPA over its proposed rule limiting carbon emissions from existing coal plants. Bicky Corman said it is too soon to say what the outcome of the suit will be but did not dismiss the possibility that it will be allowed to move forward.
Even China has realized that President Obama's biggest obstacles to meeting CO2 emissions reductions targets may be in his own backyard.
"I think they were just as concerned about the notion of the capacity of the U.S. to implement the targets," White House special envoy for climate change Todd Stern said Monday according to the Washington Examiner's Zack Colman.
But Stern said most of the concern was focused on possible Congressional backlash.
So the Chinese may not even realize how concerned they may need to be.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.