Public Utility Commissions – The Most Important Regulators You’ve Never Heard Of

November 18, 2020 | Julia Eagles

Back in September, at the Just Energy Summit—a virtual conference this year, hosted by the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE)—the session I was most excited about was the one on public utility commissions. I’m always eager to hear the ways that folks make the rather dry and esoteric topic of utility regulation both relevant and engaging, and this panel did not disappoint. Speakers Wan Smith from PSE, as well as Brionté McCorkle from the Georgia Conservation Voters, Al Ripley from the North Carolina Justice Center, and Jill Kysor from the Southern Environmental Law Center, gave context on all the everyday things that public utility commissions regulate—including electricity, gas, water, and telecommunications—as well as a few examples of why we should be paying attention and engaging in this process.

Utility regulation affects our daily lives more than most people realize. Public Utilities or Public Service Commissions (PUCs and PSCs) make critical decisions related to our power bills and how utilities will generate or acquire electricity to serve customers. There are two important areas for climate action and social equity in utility commission proceedings. The first is rate cases, which determine how much money the utility is allowed to make and how much customers will pay for it. The second is resource plans, which dictate targets for energy efficiency and the mix of renewable energy and fossil fuel generation that the utility will use to meet customer electricity demand.

In the Just Energy Summit session, presenters emphasized the ways that utility regulation affects public health, household budgets, and access to basic services like electricity and water, and as well as how it influences who benefits and who is burdened by the clean energy transition. Speakers also emphasized the opportunity and imperative to bring issues of equity, and racial equity specifically, into utility decision-making process. The detrimental and disproportionate impacts of energy decisions on people of color are documented and relevant to the mandates utilities follow to protect the public interest and minimize environmental and cost impacts. Bringing these issues to the forefront requires more people participating in the process—showing up, submitting comments, participating in public hearing—but also requires that the process itself become more accessible. In some states, commission members are appointed, generally by the governor, so there is minimal opportunity for input. In others, such as Georgia, commissioners are elected positions. One of the commission races is headed to a run-off in January 2021.  Several speakers gave shout-outs to @wetheplugtho—a non-partisan, community-led campaign run by a coalition of non-profits. The campaign’s goal is “to hold the Georgia Public Service Commission accountable to Black, brown, people of color and working-class energy and gas ratepayers.” The campaign was launched after the Georgia PSC voted to end the utility shut-off moratorium in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign has a series of great resources on their Facebook and Instagram pages.  

IMT is a long-time advocate of local governments engaging more with utility commissions, and we’ve produced resources explaining why it matters, what local governments can achieve, and how to set up for success. More recently, we looked at ways that some jurisdictions are transforming utility regulation to achieve climate goals. We look forward to sharing more detail in a future blog on our work in Minnesota to engage local government leaders in Xcel Energy’s Upper Midwest Resource Plan to advocate for equity issues and city climate and renewable energy goals. You can view all the sessions from the Just Energy Summit on the Partnership for Southern Equity’s YouTube channel on topics including equity in energy efficiency, just transition, and the struggle between COVID and energy bills. It’s a resource I’ve been going back to over the past few weeks as we think about our power sector strategy for the next year and how to intentionally center equity and justice in that work.

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Associate Director of Utility & Regulatory Strategy

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