The revolving door at public utilities commissions? It is alive and nicely

The revolving door at public utilities commissions? It's alive and well

This story initially printed in Boiling Level, a e-newsletter about local weather change and the atmosphere. Enroll right here to get it in your inbox.

If the phrases “public utilities fee” put you to sleep, you’re not alone.

These are the federal government companies that regulate utilities — corporations that provide us with electrical energy, gasoline, water and extra. All 50 states have them — and as boring as they sound, their work impacts our every day lives. Utilities commissions have a key function to play in conserving vitality payments from getting too excessive, making certain the lights keep on and policing unhealthy habits by monopoly utilities.

They’re additionally essential to combating the local weather disaster.

Commissioners are answerable for approving massive expenditures by utilities, together with renewable vitality purchases, in order that they have enormous affect over how shortly we cease burning fossil fuels. Additionally they maintain sway over rooftop photo voltaic incentives, electrical automobile charging stations and the way we warmth our properties. Because the Biden administration begins distributing a whole bunch of billions of {dollars} in clear vitality funding from the Inflation Discount Act, commissioners will assist decide how that cash is spent.

So who’re the folks making these selections? And what may their biases appear like?

A brand new examine gives an interesting portrait of America’s utility commissioners — and their {industry} ties.

Printed final week within the peer-reviewed journal Power Analysis & Social Science, the examine from Brown College postdoctoral researcher Jaren Heern examines the skilled backgrounds of the 818 utility commissioners who served throughout all 50 states between 2000 and 2020. Heern discovered 25% of these commissioners — whose selections may make or break the planet’s local weather — had beforehand labored within the utility or fossil gasoline {industry}, in comparison with 19% with an environmental background.

Additionally hanging: Of the 473 commissioners for whom Heern may discover data on what they did after they left utility regulation, 50% of them went to work for one of many industries they regulated, or in an industry-adjacent function akin to consulting.

“That revolving door is unquestionably alive and nicely,” Heern advised me.

Alive and nicely and intensely related to the clear vitality transition.

Though Heern famous that having beforehand labored for a utility may give a regulator helpful experience, he additionally pointed to research exhibiting that former utility and fossil gasoline {industry} staff who grow to be commissioners “are inclined to make extra selections that profit the {industry}.” That might imply permitting utilities to maintain sinking buyer cash into coal and gasoline crops when photo voltaic or wind could be cheaper. It may additionally imply slashing incentives for rooftop photo voltaic panels, which may threaten utility income.

Activists protest Southern California Edison’s proposal to the California Public Utilities Fee to cut back rooftop photo voltaic incentives in 2021.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Instances)

Not all utility corporations are against local weather motion — in some circumstances, removed from it.

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Take Southern California Edison. The investor-owned utility has emphasised it’s dedicated to the state’s 100% clear vitality goal and has pushed for extra electrical vehicles on the street and electrical warmth pumps in properties, to exchange gasoline heating techniques.

In fact, decreasing demand for oil and pure gasoline creates extra demand for the product Edison sells — electrical energy.

However some electrical utilities have continued to combat aggressive local weather motion — particularly those who have invested closely in fossil fuels and are relying on prospects paying off their investments for years or a long time. These corporations are sometimes banking on regulators who see the world their approach, in line with Leah Stokes, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara.

“The most important drawback we’ve got with utility regulation on this nation is the seize of unbiased companies by utilities,” Stokes advised me. “Electrical charges are larger than they need to be. Now we have far more polluting infrastructure than we want.”

Stokes wasn’t concerned with the brand new examine, however she wrote a e-book about utility {industry} lobbying, “Quick Circuiting Coverage: Curiosity Teams and the Battle Over Clear Power and Local weather Coverage within the American States.” She mentioned Heern had compiled a novel and beneficial knowledge set that provides to the case for unbiased utility regulators — constructing on a examine she co-authored final yr discovering that in the course of the Nineties, electrical utilities joined fossil gasoline corporations in selling local weather denial and doubt.

“Utilities are going to grow to be enormous engines of local weather motion if they’ll really wrap their heads round it,” Stokes mentioned.

Heern’s examine provided a little bit of hope: Twenty-nine p.c of utility commissioners in 2020 had a background engaged on the atmosphere, in comparison with 12% of commissioners twenty years earlier. He speculated that could be as a result of governors — who appoint commissioners in 39 states — have more and more acknowledged the significance of local weather change in utility regulation.

“If you happen to care about local weather — or how a lot you pay in your electrical payments each month — you need to be evaluating governors on what sorts of public utility commissioners they’re going to be appointing,” Heern mentioned.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has made his mark on the Public Utilities Fee, appointing all 5 members. Two of these members — President Alice Reynolds and Karen Douglas — beforehand served as Newsom’s senior vitality adviser.

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That’s frequent, with 30% of utility commissioners nationwide coming from a governor’s private community, per Heern’s examine.

Gov. Gavin Newsom tours the North Complex fire zone in Butte County in 2020.

Gov. Gavin Newsom excursions the North Complicated fireplace zone in Butte County in 2020.

(Paul Kitagaki Jr. / The Sacramento Bee by way of AP)

Newsom’s appointees have confronted intense criticism, particularly after they voted to cut back rooftop photo voltaic incentives on the behest of Edison and different utilities — in addition to shopper advocates — who mentioned the funds benefited wealthier households on the expense of poorer ones. Critics have additionally slammed the company for permitting the state to stay depending on gas-fired energy crops, and for not shifting extra aggressively to restructure Pacific Gasoline & Electrical after its electrical strains started igniting lethal wildfires.

Newsom’s workplace didn’t reply to my request for remark about how the governor selects commissioners.

However a number of the earlier commissioners had shut relationships with the utility {industry}.

Michael Peevey led the Public Utilities Fee for greater than a decade, after beforehand serving as president of SoCal Edison. He stepped down from the fee in 2014 amid allegations of a comfortable relationship with PG&E. A couple of months later, the general public realized he had additionally held secret discussions with Edison, his former employer, to assist decide how a lot cash the corporate’s shareholders must pay following the untimely closure of the San Onofore nuclear energy plant.

Though commissioners are appointed by governors in most locations, they’re elected by public vote in 9 states.

Elections have pluses and minuses, Heern mentioned. Elected commissioners are much less more likely to have beforehand labored within the utility {industry}, that means they could be extra unbiased. And so they’re extra accountable to the general public, at the least in concept.

Then again, elected commissioners are inclined to have much less expertise regulating utilities than these appointed by governors — simply 26% of elected commissioners have a regulatory background, in comparison with 45% of appointed commissioners.

And, crucially, utility corporations can bankroll elected candidates, exerting affect via marketing campaign money.

Arizona’s largest utility, as an illustration, gave hundreds of thousands of {dollars} to dark-money teams that helped elect two commissioners — after which refused to acknowledge that spending for years. The brand new commissioners later voted to slash rooftop photo voltaic incentives.

“Which may be my largest concern — that wide-open door for affect by utilities,” Heern mentioned.

New Mexico is one other fascinating case examine.

In 2020, voters accepted a constitutional modification backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that modified the state’s utilities fee from a five-member physique elected by voters to a three-member physique appointed by the governor.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham addresses the Democratic National Convention, with solar panels in the background.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham addresses the Democratic Nationwide Conference in 2020, with photo voltaic panels within the background.

(DNCC by way of Getty Photographs)

Nearly instantly, issues went sideways. One of many governor’s appointees resigned after lower than two weeks, acknowledging he didn’t meet the academic necessities. A couple of weeks later, one other Lujan Grisham appointee, Patrick O’Connell, recused himself from the best profile choice going through the fee — the proposed acquisition of the state’s largest electrical utility by Avangrid, a subsidiary of Spanish vitality large Iberdrola. O’Connell had beforehand testified in favor of the acquisition.

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Even with out O’Connell, Iberdrola could get its approach. The utilities fee had beforehand rejected the $8-billion acquisition. However Lujan Grisham supported the deal, and her new commissioners are looking for to rethink the company’s earlier choice.

Whether or not a state elects or appoints utility commissioners, “we will see regulatory seize in both case,” Stokes mentioned.

Lujan Grisham, like Newsom, is a Democrat — which results in one final level.

Though Heern discovered that Democratic commissioners had been extra more likely to have an environmental background than Republican commissioners, he in any other case didn’t see a lot distinction between crimson and blue states, by way of who’s regulating utilities — for higher or worse. Governors and appointees of each events are prone to {industry} affect. There are Democratic governors nominating gasoline {industry} executives, and Republican commissioners going together with utility plans for 100% clear vitality.

Heern hopes his analysis sparks additional inquiry into how governors choose utility regulators, and what elements affect these regulators’ selections. That data may very well be beneficial for local weather advocates working to advertise state-level motion.

Public utilities commissions “are tremendous vital, however they only don’t get any consideration,” Heern mentioned.

Hopefully, that can change. Federal scientists reported this week that ranges of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in Earth’s ambiance simply reached their highest degree in additional than 4 million years — they usually’re growing at one of many quickest charges on document.

Public utilities commissions will help stave off disaster. However provided that we hold the highlight on them, shining vibrant.


Photo illustration of Sammy Roth looking at map with wind turbines

Within the subsequent few weeks, The Instances will publish Half 3 of my ongoing collection, Repowering the West, exploring how the clear vitality transition is reshaping landscapes, ecosystems and communities throughout the western U.S. This subsequent installment is about Nevada, the place renewable vitality corporations have proposed dozens of enormous photo voltaic farms on public lands surrounding Las Vegas.

Atone for the primary two tales right here. And as at all times, please think about subscribing to The Instances to assist my reporting.

We’ll be again in your inbox on Tuesday. To view this article in your Net browser, click on right here. And for extra local weather and atmosphere information, comply with @Sammy_Roth on Twitter.

For the document: Final Tuesday’s version of this article misstated the headquarters of Southwest Energy Pool, a regional transmission group. It’s primarily based in Arkansas.

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