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Finding The Power In Washington

For the average electric utility customer, figuring out what our national energy policy is—and who is in charge of what—can be like untangling the jumble of light strings and garlands after the holidays.

As the new year begins, changes are under way in our nation’s capital, making it difficult to predict what the priorities for energy policy will be. After the fall elections, newly elected senators and representatives are working out how to put campaign promises into action. President Bush is preparing his inaugural speech and planning the presentation of his energy policies.

Meanwhile, returning members of Congress are pondering who they’ll add to the various committees in the House and Senate, and setting priorities for new legislation. Civil servants, those unelected bureaucrats who do the daily work in offices throughout the District of Columbia, continue to sift through the stacks of reports and papers required to comply with existing rules.

All that activity could result in new decisions about energy policy that will affect electric utilities—and their customers.

The person most widely visible to the general public will be the new Energy secretary, a member of the president’s Cabinet. This person serves not only as an advisor to the president, but also as spokesman on all sorts of energy issues, conveying the president’s ideas and goals to members of Congress and directly to the American people. The Energy secretary also has a bureaucratic function as head of the Department of Energy (DOE), overseeing various energy-related programs, directing the implementation of rules and regulations.

Less widely featured in the mass media will be the chief of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This five-member government agency regulates the interstate transmission of electricity (as well as natural gas and oil), both in the physical sense of how energy moves from place to place, and in terms of money, including how prices are set at the wholesale level (individual states regulate retail sales).

Reporting to FERC are still other entities, including various federal power marketing administrations. Such groups play a vital role in the minute-by-minute distribution of electricity. For example, SEPA (Southeastern Power Administration) regulates electricity generated by water at federal dams. Although power from such dams may not originate in Kentucky, whenever Kentucky’s electric utilities buy surplus power generated at out-of-state federal dams, SEPA is involved in the transaction.

Elected officials from Kentucky will be among the key decision-makers in the 109th Congress, which begins its session this month. Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning serves on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Representative Ed Whitfield serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The difference in names of those two committees reflects one of the difficulties of developing a coherent national energy policy—energy is both a matter of using natural resources wisely and a matter of economics and sound business policies.

For America’s electric cooperatives, the situation becomes even more complicated due to the impact of the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), a government agency that deals with the financial realities of such things as the construction loans needed for co-ops to build new electric generating facilities.

National energy policy, set forth by the president and his Cabinet members, then turned into laws by Congress and carried out by bureaucratic agencies with overlapping jurisdictions, is such a complex and intertwined enterprise, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, spends much of its time on education.

NRECA personnel continually meet with elected and appointed officials, keeping them up-to-date on the intricacies of getting electricity from the generating station to the light switch. NRECA personnel also keep member cooperatives in 46 states advised of what’s going on in Washington and the potential impact it would have for their owner/members.

To find out more about America’s energy policy, try these Web sites: and


DOE: U.S. Department of Energy

FERC: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

SEPA: Southeastern Power Administration

NRECA: National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

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