State Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) regulate the rates and services of public utilities that provide electricity, gas, sewage, or water. These governing bodies formed to provide oversight to utilities to whom they have granted monopoly markets. Generally, the mission of PUCs is to approximate the prices of a competitive market, which requires balancing the needs of consumers and the utility. Traditionally, PUCs are charged to keep rates low, ensure reliable supply, and allow utilities the opportunity to earn a profit on their business.
To make swift progress on climate goals, we must change the way PUCs respond to clean energy and climate efforts.
With a vast array of effective clean energy technologies existing today, regulatory changes can revolutionize how energy is delivered and consumed in the time of this climate crisis. Currently, PUCs operate in ways that fail to treat clean energy resources on a level playing field, often furthering the region’s dependence on fossil fuels. These regulatory bodies have the potential to advance a low-carbon future, but outdated mandates keep them from doing so.
For example, National Grid, Rhode Island’s only electric and gas utility, filed a stakeholder-supported plan in 2019 with the state’s PUC. The plan recommended using the state energy efficiency program to install heat pumps in oil and propane heated homes. The PUC denied that provision, ruling that the benefits to electric customers —including lower rates and climate and health benefits —did not outweigh the costs. The PUC reached this conclusion in part because it could not consider the benefits to oil and propane customers – including lower bills and improved indoor air quality. In general, PUCs throughout the Northeast are required to focus on rate impacts, rather than addressing a more complete assessment of ratepayer benefits, including meeting state climate goals and utilizing clean technologies to improve indoor air quality or provide other consumer benefits that overall lower bills. As a result, the additional consumer, health, economic and equity benefits that can be achieved through climate action are often overlooked in cost comparisons.
Acadia Center advocates for regulatory changes that benefit the climate and consumer.
Too often, clean alternatives —including clean heating— are harmed by the PUC mandates, slowing down the transition to a clean energy economy. As evident in the Rhode Island example, a view that considers only the short-term rate impacts misses the potential future costs of energy investments that lean heavily on fossil fuels. These costs will accrue to utilities and ratepayers in the form of more-expensive grid hardening expenses and storm recovery from increasingly common extreme weather, and to all of us in the form of costs of disaster response and recovery. PUC enabling statutes throughout the Northeast do not appropriately account for these continued impacts and are misaligned with the states’ push for dramatic emission reductions. These statutes are overdue for reform. If we were to update the enabling statutes to clarify the PUCs’ responsibility to regulate in alignment with state policy goals, we could require consideration of the full costs of energy investments in all decisions and mandate minimizing climate impacts. This would allow utility regulators to make decisions that support greenhouse gas reduction and consider climate change impacts, and that appropriately value societal health impacts, job creation, improved reliability, and other quantifiable costs and benefits. This screen could minimize long-term costs to ratepayers from climate and other impacts that now fall outside the scope of the PUCs’ prime responsibility in just keeping the cost of energy low. Implementation of this change would require updating cost-benefit tests to utilize a consistent set of total costs and benefits, including those borne or received by society, the environment, or consumers as described above. This can ensure that PUC decisions continue to benefit today’s customers, but not at the expense of future customers.
by Amy Boyd
Amy Boyd is Senior Attorney in Acadia Center’s Boston office. She works on energy efficiency, demand management, local energy resources, grid modernization, and climate change issues, with a particular focus on Massachusetts state policy.