SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said changing times on the energy front require more flexibility and freedom for the state's largest electricity provider to implement changes, propelling his sponsorship of a bill to do just that.
But SB115, debated in a legislative committee hearing on Thursday, was repeatedly criticized as a Rocky Mountain Power free-for-all when it comes to potential rate increases and an end-run around the Public Service Commission.
"This will increase rates," warned Michele Beck, director of the state Office of Consumer Services, adding that it removes regulatory oversight of the utility company by the Public Service Commission.
Adams said there is nothing in his bill that prohibits oversight by the commission, but it does give Rocky Mountain Power more discretionary tools to direct ratepayer revenue into what he says are clean air initiatives, such as money to encourage the purchase of electric cars and allowing the company to stockpile dollars for potential upgrades to existing power plants in the face of federal regulations.
"I think we need to be proactive and be forward-looking and deal with problems before they arise, and that is what Senate Bill 115 tries to do," Adams said.
Members of the Senate Transportation and Public Utilities and Technology Committee had plenty of questions on the many-faceted measure, but passed it out of committee so it could get more debate and discussion among the full body of the Senate.
Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said the bill is "many bills in one," but she stressed other lawmakers need to learn more about its provisions.
"As you know, this is a big banana," she said.
Kelly Francone, head of coalition representing many commercial, industrial, residential and agricultural customers, as well as what she described as 30 of the largest energy users in the state, said the bill is bad business for everyone because it allows the revenue from rates to support programs that have not been evaluated to be cost-effective.
"And we don't believe they should be in the electric vehicle business," she said.
Other critics include Utah Clean Energy and HEAL Utah.
Claire Geddes a longtime watchdog on the Hill, told lawmakers that Utah enjoys among the lowest electrical rates in the nation, but that will change if the utility company is allowed to pile on extra costs for special projects or other investments.
"These are totally inappropriate. You don't do it on the back of my utility bill. You are an opening a Pandora's box by going down this road," Geddes said.
Adams said the utility company needs to get a policy directive from the Utah Legislature to make clean energy investments and shift toward a future that includes $10 million directed into clean coal technology.
He added he does not have the same level of confidence that critics have in the three member Public Service Commission.
"I think it is the Legislature's right to set policy," he said.
The bill has the support of the Utah League of Cities & Towns.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, was the lone dissenter on sending SB115 on for further discussion.
"I think it is incumbent on this committee to get it right before we send it to the floor," he said.