Louisiana families and small businesses will soon get help from their electric and gas utilities on how to use energy more efficiently.
The Public Service Commission voted last month to begin a four-year pilot program on energy efficiency. The state’s major gas and electric utilities, including CenterPoint Energy Arkla and SWEPCO, will develop plans to help customers use less energy.
Energy efficiency means lower utility bills, less pollution, less reliance on foreign oil and more reliable utility operation. Most states and the federal government have adopted comprehensive programs to promote energy efficiency.
Annual energy savings from all customer-funded efficiency programs topped 18 million megawatt-hours in 2010, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. That’s a 40-percent increase over a year earlier. It is also equivalent to the amount of electricity the state of Wyoming uses each year.
Louisiana utilities and the LPSC will use existing efficiency programs as a guide in the development of new programs serving residents and businesses.
Here are some examples of what other states are doing and what may be offered here:
n Home energy audits
n Use of efficient compact-fluorescent light bulbs
n Tune-up of home and business heating and air-conditioning systems
n Weatherization including home insulation
The programs put into place will be evaluated over the next four years for their effectiveness and cost. What works will become the basis for a more permanent approach to be adopted by the LPSC and utilities.
Inmate Telephone Reform Approved. Passage of the energy-efficiency program at the LPSC occurred at the same meeting at which the commission voted unanimously to reform the business of inmate telephones in Louisiana.
The reform means that those who accept calls from jail inmates in Louisiana will soon see their bills reduced by roughly a third.
The reform, which I sponsored jointly with retiring Commissioner Jimmy Field of Baton Rouge, consisted of two parts:
1. Lowering the average per-minute charge for calls from jail from 30 cents to 23 cents, a reduction of 25 percent; and
2. Eliminating the illegal practice of adding fees and charges to the bills of people accepting collect calls from jail. For example, it is not uncommon to pay $7 for each $50 block of call time purchased or $5 to request a refund on an unused balance.
The commission ordered that rates be reduced as soon as new contracts between jails and inmate telephone providers are implemented, or within two years, whichever comes sooner.
The add-on fees are to be removed within 30 days of the date the LPSC decision takes effect.
Commission staff estimated that the 25-percent rate reduction and elimination of add-on fees will effectively lower the cost of inmate calls by a third.
Louisiana holds 40,000 people behind bars. That is more per capita than any place on Earth. Inmates are housed in 170 state and local prisons and jails.
Each correctional facility grants a monopoly to a private company to run the telephones connecting inmates to people on the outside.
Typically it is family members of inmates who accept the collect calls and bear the burden of their high cost.
The LPSC voted to investigate this industry in the spring of 2011. We learned that prison calls average 30 cents a minute — 15 times higher than calls on the outside.
Users typically pay fees on top of these high rates even though existing commission orders prohibit added charges.
Groups that advocate reform of the inmate telephone business say Louisiana was the ninth state in the nation to rein in this industry.
Our decision was validated by news late in December that the Federal Communications Commission is taking steps nationally to limit the cost of inmate calls that cross state lines.
The LPSC decision means that Louisiana has corrected an unjust, unreasonable and unfair situation. I appreciate all the people who helped to make the vote possible despite fierce opposition from the incarceration industry.
Second Round of Valley Refunds Paid. The end of December saw checks totaling $4.5 million mailed to former Valley Electric Co-op members.
The checks were part of a long-term effort by Valley Electric and its new owner, SWEPCO, to refund $25 million in “patronage capital credits” owed to Valley’s 30,000-plus members. Patronage capital credits are accumulated by electric co-op members as their share of co-op earnings.
The first round of credit payments by Valley, in 2011, amounted to approximately 80 percent of the credits in member accounts.
The remaining 20 percent, paid out in this round, was retained by Valley officials to satisfy liabilities of the Natchitoches-based cooperative.
I’m happy the people on the former Valley system are getting their money back. It’s a great time of year to receive a check in the mail.