Energy-market expert to address NPRC annual meeting


Tyson Slocum, the keynote speaker at this weekend’s annual meeting of the Northern Plains Resource Council, appeared on “The Colbert Report” in 2008.

In a few short years, Tyson Slocum says, advances in the efficiency of power-storage batteries will have reached the point of making renewable energy “grid-comparable.”

That means the cost of installing and maintaining a small-scale energy generation and storage systems will be on par with the costs of buying energy from a utility company.

“We’re seeing a real active transformation in energy markets, where renewable energy is increasingly cost-competitive,” Slocum said. “That’s the holy grail. That’s the big change.”

If many consumers don’t realize that yet, he said, the fossil fuel industry and the nuclear power industry certainly do, and they will be doing everything they can to “try and slow that transformation down,” primarily by seeking new laws and regulations.

Slocum, head of the energy program for Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, will bring that message to Billings this weekend during the 46th annual meeting of the Northern Plains Resource Council.

He will speak at 10:15 a.m. Saturday at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in downtown Billings. For details on the annual meeting, which will run Friday and Saturday, see below or go to the NPRC website.

Having spoken here once before, as part of a panel at the NPRC’s annual meeting in 2014, Slocum, who lives in Washington, D.C., said he looks forward to coming back.

“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I was really floored by the grass-roots nature of the organization, the really active membership.”

The admiration runs both ways. Ed Gulick, chair of the NPRC’s Clean Energy Task Force, said Slocum is “a very dynamic speaker, but also very informed. We’re really happy that he accepted our invitation to return.”

For Public Citizen, Slocum focuses on climate change, coal, oil, fracking, nuclear energy, renewables and commodity market oversight. He has written numerous reports on these subjects and others and has testified before Congress, as recently as last month.

He also appears regularly in print and on radio and TV shows, including the “PBS NewsHour” and “The Colbert Report.” (Click here to see him talking to Stephen Colbert in 2008.)

One of the biggest assaults on renewable energy is a proposal from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to, in Slocum’s words, “revamp the wholesale power markets.”

In a Sept. 28 letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Perry called on the commission to issue rules that would establish a new pricing structure to compensate coal-fired and nuclear power plants for their “resiliency attributes.”

“Market changes are resulting in a significant loss of traditional baseload generation,” Perry said in the letter, noting that 531 coal-generating units in the United States were retired between 2002 and 2016, as were nuclear power plants that produced 4.7 percent of the nation’s generation capacity.

However, Perry went on to say, natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and the Polar Vortex of 2014, demonstrated that the nation needs to preserve coal and nuclear plants, “these fuel-secure generation resources” that have the generation and storage capacities needed to respond to crises. He therefore asked the commission to “accurately price generation resources necessary to maintain the reliability and resiliency of our Nation’s electric grid.”

Slocum sees things a bit differently. He said aging coal and nuclear plants are decreasingly competitive with renewable energy sources, so the industries are looking for a “consumer-funded bailout.” If the new pricing structure advocated by Perry is approved, Slocum said, it would be biggest development in energy markets in 30 years.

Slocum said Perry’s proposal is also something of “the canary in the coal mine” — a metaphor he used with no apparent attempt at humor — and if it is approved, there will be other attempts by traditional power generators to skew the market in their favor.

What the country should be doing, Slocum said, is following the lead of China and Germany, the two countries that produce most of the photovoltaic solar energy devices sold anywhere in the world. Instead, he said, the Trump administration is hoping to impose trade tariffs on China, which it accuses of dumping subsidized solar panels on the U.S. market at prices American companies can’t compete with.

Slocum said he sympathizes with the administration’s concerns, “but this action is coming at exactly the wrong time.” Solar energy technology has never been cheaper, he said, so shutting out the Chinese would help a small number of domestic manufacturers while hurting millions of Americans taking advantage of the cheaper Chinese products.

In Germany, Slocum said, the government encouraged photovoltaic manufacturers by first creating a massive internal market by offering generous subsidies for on-site production of solar and other renewable resources. The effort was so successful that Germany had to pare down the domestic incentives so its manufacturers, who were losing market share to Chinese companies, could increase production for export.

And Germany was able to compete with China even while being, relatively, a country with much higher wages, Slocum said. So instead of fighting Chinese imports or propping up traditional power plants, Slocum said, the United States should be creating incentives for locally produced renewable energy.

Details on the annual meeting:

The annual meeting of the Northern Plains Resource Council opens Friday at noon at the DoubleTree by Hilton, 27 N. 27th St., with registration, followed by the opening of the meeting at 1.

At 6, the event moves to the First Congregational Church, 310 N. 27th St., for the annual Cowboy Super, hosted by the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, the NPRC affiliate in the Billings area.

Saturday morning, back at the DoubleTree, registration opens at 8 a.m., with a panel discussion on “How to Talk About Climate Change” at 9, and at 10, Susan Heyneman will be presented with the Len & Sandy Sargent Stewardship Award by the Cinnabar Foundation.

Slocum will speak at 10:25, followed by lunch at 11:25, then more panels discussions in the afternoon: “Making Clean Energy Accessible to All,” 1 p.m.; “Honoring the Past: Northern Plains History Project,2:15; “What’s the Dirt on the Stuff Under Our Feet?”, 3; and “Jobs Versus the Environment: A False Choice,” 4.

The social hour is at 5 and dinner at 6, with music by Dennis Netiksimmons.

Besides Slocum, the other speakers are Rebecca Newberry, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition in western New York, and Tammy Agard, president of EEtility in Arkansas.

Newberry has guided the launch of the Just Transition campaign to help the community respond to the closure of the coal-fired Huntley Generating Station in Tonawanda, N.Y.

Aagard is the program manager for on-bill financing programs in partnership with five rural electric cooperatives. On-bill financing is a mechanism by which utilities loan people money for energy efficiency or renewable energy improvements to their property. Property owners generally see no out-of-pocket cost for the improvements, and then pay them back on their monthly utility bill, frequently with their energy savings being larger than their payment.

Tickets for one or all of the sessions are available online or by calling 248-1154. Students can attend sessions for free.

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