Marc Spitzer ’79
FERC's Marc Spitzer ’79 promotes consumer choice
by Matt Getty
April 1, 2010
FERC Commissioner Marc Spitzer '79's global education came in handy recently when he represented the United States at the 2009 G8 Summit in Rome.
When we imagine a more sustainable future, exciting new technologies like hydrogen-powered cars and high-efficiency solar cells usually leap to mind. Marc Spitzer ’79, however, knows the future really depends on more mundane concepts like regulations and economics.
“Smart technologies don’t do you any good if you don’t have smart prices,” says Spitzer, a 2006 presidential appointee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
The Smart Grid, for instance, one of the key national sustainability initiatives Spitzer is overseeing as a FERC commissioner, can only help build a clean-energy future if the way we pay for power becomes as sophisticated as the technologies generating that power. Meters already exist that would allow consumers to choose to use more energy when it’s being produced by renewable sources and less when it’s being produced by fossil fuels. But consumers still need a cost incentive.
“If you can save some money on your energy bill, you might be willing to set your refrigerator so that it only cycles during the hours when energy is produced by cheaper and cleaner wind power instead of coal, or electronically control the air conditioner to use solar power,” he explains. “We’re looking for regulators to give smart prices to customers so they can choose to use electricity when the price is lowest and the impact on the environment is most benign.”
That means that on top of his work overseeing the reliability of the electricity grid, approving utility mergers and regulating wholesale energy markets, Spitzer is collaborating with state and regional transmission organizations to change the way utilities charge customers. This market-based approach has been the cornerstone of Spitzer’s efforts to protect the environment since his days as an Arizona Republican state senator (1992-2000) and elected Arizona corporation commissioner (2001-06), when he authored Arizona’s Clean Air Act and Renewable Portfolio Standard.
“The economic incentives don’t exist for clean energy under the antiquated rate-based, monopoly model,” says Spitzer, who recently helped strike a blow for sustainability by loosening New England energy-market regulations. “We allowed demand reduction to bid into the New England power market just like a power plant and, as a consequence, the need for increased power was achieved 100 percent through reduction of demand. … That gives you the best result for both the customer and the environment.”
In addition to his goal of putting smart meters with smart prices in 10 million homes by 2011, Spitzer also expects to play a large role in policing the cap-and-trade markets Congress is expected to establish to bring the price of fossil fuels in line with their true cost. Attacking sustainability from this economic and political angle, he notes, demands an interdisciplinary approach.
“There are lots of moving parts in energy policy,” says the former history and political-science major, who began his career as a tax lawyer after graduating from the University of Michigan School of Law.
“You have to understand engineering, economics, law, politics,” he says. “I think my liberal-arts education at Dickinson prepared me to do that. Had I just studied accounting or only engineering, I would have missed something. If you want to tackle these issues, you need that exposure to multiple points of view and different curricula.”