Consumers who use mass transit, buy homes or plan to shop for alternative-fuel automobiles or energy-efficient appliances would benefit from the sweeping energy bill that passed the Senate on Thursday.
Passage of the bill marked a big victory for energy experts who had lobbied for years on behalf of energy-conscious consumers.
The mammoth legislation--expected to be signed by President Bush after House and Senate conferees reconcile their different versions of the bill--would overhaul energy policy and affect everything from natural gas to high-speed railroads.
"When all is said and done, it's a big step forward from the status quo," California Energy Commission Chairman Charles R. Imbrecht said Friday.
The broadest shift would come in a House provision--expected to survive the House-Senate conferences--that would increase competition in electricity production by non-utilities. While regulations currently encourage such independent producers to create electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources, the bill would extend this to fossil fuels.
As a result, the independents are expected to greatly increase their use of natural gas, and many experts expect that this new competition will lower electricity rates for consumers during the next decade.
"It represents the most fundamental change in any industry that's dealt with in the bill," said Leon Lowery, a lobbyist for Environmental Action, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group.
"There are lots and lots of municipal utilities that buy power from investor-owned utilities," Lowery explained, "and they are going to have lots more options than in the past. . . . The pressure on utilities to keep rates down is greater the more options there are."
A Southern California Edison spokeswoman cautioned, however, that some provisions of the bill might actually raise rates for its customers.
Some energy analysts also speculated that provisions that ease the approval process for new pipelines could mean higher natural gas prices for consumers. "It's going to allow construction of a lot of new pipeline that we don't necessarily need, and that we end up paying for," said Ed Rothschild, energy policy director for Citizen Action in Washington.
But there are tangible benefits for energy-minded consumers.
By next year, homeowners would receive tax benefits for the rebates they receive from utilities for such improvements as energy-efficient water heaters and heavier insulation. Currently, the Internal Revenue Service considers these rebates to be taxable income.
The bill would also provide tax incentives for people buying alternative-fuel automobiles and who use mass transit and ride-sharing options for getting to work.
Perhaps the least-known aspect of the bill involves an innovative home mortgage concept.
Designed to encourage energy efficiency in housing, it would help establish a national rating system for homes. Something like the mileage ratings on new automobiles, homes would be rated for insulation, heating and cooling systems, and other attributes that affect energy use. Mortgage lenders could make bigger loans to homeowners with energy-efficient houses because their monthly utility expenses would be lower.
Key Consumer Points in Energy Bill
* Utility Rebates: Consumers who receive utility company rebates for improving the energy efficiency of their homes would no longer have to pay income tax on those rebates.
* Mass Transit: Commuters would get a better tax break for using mass transit. Employers could subsidize workers' transportation costs up to $60 a month--up from $21--without employees having to pay taxes on the subsidy.
* Employee Parking: To encourage use of mass transit and car pooling, the House would put a non-taxable cap of $160 (the Senate version sets a $145 cap) on the value of "free parking" that businesses provide for employees. For example, if the value of a downtown parking space is $190 a month, and the employer subsidizes this parking, the employee would have to pay federal income taxes on $30 of that amount under the House version.
* Alternative Fuel Automobiles: Consumers would get tax deductions of up to $2,000 for buying vehicles that run on electricity, natural gas, methanol and other alternative fuels.
* Alternative Energy: Tax credits for wind, solar and other electric power from renewable sources would be made permanent rather than subject to annual review by Congress.
* Energy Efficient Homes: Much as refrigerators and hot-water heaters now carry energy efficiency ratings, homes would be similarly rated. Home buyers might qualify for special mortgage loans that take energy efficiency into account. For example, a mortgage lender might be able to qualify you for a larger loan if you buy a well-insulated house that would reduce future utility bills.