The least-sexy of Bill Clinton’s energy prescriptions may also be the most effective: a way for Washington to drive energy efficiency.

Former president Bill Clinton’s 10-point energy plan, laid out at a Las Vegas clean-energy powwow this week, included the by-now standard calls for more federal support for renewable energy and clean coal, among other things.


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But one of his ideas is just wonky enough that it would actually make a big difference—or stir up a big fight. President Clinton proposed that Washington step in and change the way that power companies do business, by separating their earnings from the amount of electricity they sell.

That idea—known as “decoupling,” and already the law in California—gives power companies a financial incentive to be energy-efficient; in other states, utilities which sell less juice can end up being penalized. And getting utilities (and customers) to be more energy-efficient is one of the quickest and easiest ways to curb America’s energy appetite, lots of experts say.

So what’s the problem? Washington doesn’t regulate local utilities—state regulators do. And nobody likes to surrender power, setting the stage for a messy showdown. From AP:

“That could be a hornet’s nest,” [electricity association spokesman Jim] Owen said, because state regulators have traditionally set the rules for utilities. “That would be a tricky proposition.”

Since there’s no Clinton—Bill or the other one—in the race anymore, why does it matter? Because senator Obama is also a believer, even if an idea like “decoupling” will never find its way into a prime-time speech or the senator’s energy fact sheet.
Obama aides rattled the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month by stressing the Illinois senator’s stance. From Inside Ferc (sub reqd.).:

Energy policy changes under the next president could usher in a period of overlapping state and federal regulatory roles, and FERC might find itself caught in the crosshairs of a major push to reduce electricity demand if the nation elects Senator Barack Obama to the White House. [Obama senior adviser Elgie Holstein] listed among the senator’s priorities a fleet of state regulatory matters that FERC has steered well clear of, including decoupling measures to cut out the profit incentive for utilities to sell more electricity.

President Clinton won plenty of accolades, if less ink than Paris Hilton, for his energy plan. But the guy who puts it into practice might find the going a little tougher than a Las Vegas crowd.