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Kilili pushes Interior on energy action plans

(Office of the CNMI Congressional Delegate) — U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan is leading insular area members of Congress to follow up on the energy action plans the U.S. Interior Department is required to have for each of their districts.

Public Law 113-235, the same law that included Sablan’s extension of the immigration transition period from 2014 through 2019, also provided specific instructions to Interior on actions to take to lower energy costs in the Marianas and other insular areas.

“High energy costs bedevil the insular areas we represent, harming consumers, limiting development, and draining capital from our islands’ economies,” the Members wrote to Interior Assistant Secretary Doug Domenech. Joining Sablan were Madeleine Z. Bordallo, D-Guam, Stacey Plaskett, D-U.S. Virgin Islands, and Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen, R-American Samoa.

“The Marianas buys 24 million gallons of diesel fuel each year to produce electricity — upwards of $80 million worth,” Congressman Sablan said.

“Imagine how we could lower home energy bills and keep that money in our economy, if we used wind or solar or geothermal sources instead of diesel, or increased efficiency. That is the reason we required Interior to produce energy action plans in Public Law 113-235 and report annually to Congress on the progress each insular area is making.”

Needed: a concerted effort to lower electricity costs

Public Law 113-235, enacted in December 2014, required the Interior Department to set up a team of technical, policy, and financial experts to develop an energy action plan specific to each insular area and assist in putting the plan into action. Congress was supposed to receive annual progress reports, but that has not happened.

“I am not saying Interior is not taking action,” Sablan explained. “Congress provides funding for insular area energy improvements each year — $5 million in fiscal 2018; and Interior doles out that money.

“A year ago, Interior awarded Northern Marianas College $489,807 to put solar panels on three buildings; and the Commonwealth got $168,885 to study recovering methane gas from the sanitary landfill in Marpi and the former Puerto Rico dump. P.L. 113-235 itself included the $366,407 for solar power at Garapan Public Market. Those are worthwhile projects.

“What is missing, however, is the coordinated, systematic, multi-year approach required by the law. And our letter is meant to refocus Interior’s efforts so we can more quickly lower energy costs.”

The insular delegates have also had to push back on attempts to cut funding for energy improvements. President Trump has recommended cutting the spending in half.

Efforts in Congress to develop renewable energy sources have also been frustrated. Early last year, the House Natural Resources Committee agreed to a Sablan amendment to include a feasibility study for offshore wind energy in the Marianas in a national energy policy bill, H.R. 4239. The amendment authorized offshore leases, if wind energy proved to be a feasible alternative for electrical generation.

Even though the national energy bill was introduced by Republican Whip Steve Scalise, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has taken no action.

A 2017 study of unsubsidized levelized cost of energy by the investment firm Lazard found the cost of offshore wind to be $113 per MWh as compared to $197 for diesel reciprocating engine generation in remote locations.

The 2013 Renewable Energy Integration Study commissioned by the Commonwealth Utility Corporation found possibilities for significant cost savings with the addition of renewable energy to the CUC system. Up to 8,000 kW of energy from wind or solar generation could be added to the CUC system without requiring any storage system to smooth the input from these energy sources into the Saipan distribution grid, the study found.