Few government officials will have a bigger say in how states transition from fossil fuels than public utility commissioners.
Yet, for the most part, these boards operate below the radar, rarely drawing the level of scrutiny faced by other agencies or officeholders.
Jared Heern wants to change that.
In an effort to draw more attention to the role of state utility commissions, Heern, a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute at Brown University for Environment and Society, recently assembled data on the more than 800 commissioners who served on public utility commissions across the country between 2000 and 2020. The results are laid out in a new study published in the journal Energy Research and Social Science.
“PUCs are so central to the rapid action that’s needed in decarbonization, especially since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the amount of money that’s going to be going out for that,” Heern said. “They should be getting a lot more attention than they have been and climate change makes that much more important.”
Utility commissions set rates, oversee investments in generation and transmission equipment, and enforce renewable energy requirements, among other things.
Heern’s study found that public utility commissions are appointed by governors in 41 states; elsewhere they are elected. The dominant role governors play in determining who sits on these commissions is something that is all but overlooked at election time, Heern said.
“We should be evaluating governors on what kind of PUC they’re going to appoint,” he said.
When it comes to their backgrounds, most commissioners, 42%, previously worked in utility regulation, something Heern views as positive. Next common was having been an elected official, or part of a governor’s network. A quarter of commissioners came from the utility or fossil fuel industry, experience that could potentially influence their policy preferences in favor of those interests, Heern said.
Just 19% of commissioners overall had an environmental background. However, that proportion has increased faster than any other, more than doubling from 12% in 2000 to 29% in 2020.
“That was pleasantly surprising,” Heern said. “There seems to be a lot more focus on appointing commissioners that have connections to renewable energy or environmental NGOs.”
Lack of diversity
But another study found that public utility commissions are still largely lacking in a diversity of life experiences and in an understanding of how their decisions can differently affect low-income and environmental justice communities. Issued by the Chisholm Legacy Project, a Maryland-based nonprofit that supports Black communities seeking to advance environmental justice, the report captured the gender and race of the country’s 197 sitting commissioners as of August 2022.
It found that 65% of commissioners were male; in six states, the commissioners were all male. Eighty-two percent were White; 24 states had no commissioners of color. Four states — Idaho, Maine, Mississippi and Utah — had all White male commissioners.
Only 11% of commissioners were Black, 3% were Hispanic or Latino, 3% were Asian, and 1% were Native American.
“This makeup does not reflect the racial diversity of the US as a whole,” the report noted, “with 19% of Americans identifying as Hispanic/Latino, 14% identifying as Black, and 6% identifying as Asian, according to the 2021 US Census.”
The lack of representational governance is the most glaring in the deep South, one of the most racially diverse regions of the country. Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia have the highest proportions of Black populations in the country, yet minimal diversity of representation, if any, on their public utility commissions, all of which are elected, the report said.
“That’s not an accident — that’s a whole overlay of segregation, voter suppression, and other factors,” said Charles Hua, a Harvard researcher who co-authored the study with Jacqui Patterson, Chisholm’s founder and executive director. “But those four states have some of the highest energy burdens in the U.S. The regulators have the capacity to do something about it, but they have allowed the utilities to run with their proposals that exacerbate these problems.”
Patterson said her organization plans to begin putting out information on commissioners running for office so voters in frontline communities can make informed choices.
“They want to make sure that they look at this office when they’re going to vote, and we, as advocates, will make that information easier to find,” she said.
New approaches to engagement
Yet another report issued earlier this year by the Brown University Climate and Development Lab explored how the New England states can advance an equitable energy transition. The findings, based on a series of workshops held throughout the region, include a list of actions that utility commissions can take to better engage a broader group of stakeholders.
The recommendations include improving communication with the public, being proactive about reaching out to affected stakeholders, and making it easier for the public to participate in proceedings.
“These proceedings can be very technical and opaque,” said Oliver Tully, director of utility innovation at the Acadia Center. “It can be challenging for groups who are already limited in terms of resources to participate meaningfully in proceedings where there is a lot of jargon and data to wade through.”
The climate lab report highlights one utility commission that is going out of its way to be more accessible: the Connecticut Public Utility Regulatory Authority, known as PURA. Chair Marissa Gillett has made it her mission to make the authority much more transparent and highly visible since her appointment in 2019.
“It started as an attempt to ‘brand’ PURA — it didn’t really have an identity with legislators, the media or stakeholders, beyond the traditional utility stakeholders we interact with,” Gillett said.
She began building that brand herself with what she calls her “PURA 101 roadshow.” Gillett travels around the state delivering 40-minute presentations — some four dozen of them so far — explaining what PURA’s mission is, how electric rates are set, and how to engage with the commission.
“I give the presentation to whoever shows up — two people or two dozen,” she said.
The authority also built out its social media channels, including posting tutorial videos on YouTube explaining, for example, how to navigate the online docket system or what a particular decision means.
Still not satisfied with the level of public comments they were receiving on important dockets, Gillett more recently decided to introduce a quarterly newsletter highlighting major decisions in plain language, and alerting recipients to future cases they might want to weigh in on.
During the past legislative session, the authority threw its support behind a new stakeholder compensation program contained within SB 7, a major energy regulation reform bill. The program, which launches in 2024, will provide financial assistance to stakeholder groups that represent limited-income residents, environmental justice communities, or small business customers in a PURA proceeding.
These groups will be eligible to receive up to $100,000 per stakeholder group, and up to $300,000 for all stakeholder groups per proceeding, with a cap of $1.2 million for all stakeholder groups per calendar year.
“For some proceedings, you really need an attorney or expert witnesses, and the idea is to start to empower groups and bridge that gap,” Gillett said.
Looking ahead, Gillett said, she recognizes that much, much more investment will be required to help states adapt to climate change. And consumers are going to want to know where that money is going and who is managing it.
“There’s so much more attention and urgency,” she said. “And consumers are increasingly more aware of what they’re spending on power. The commissions that have not figured out that they’re going to increasingly be in the spotlight are going to be caught flat-footed.”