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What are public utility commissions? A beginner’s guide

Utility regulators hold the keys to the transition from fossil fuels. Here’s how to engage with the clean-energy gatekeepers you’ve never heard of.
By Julian Spector

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Members of the audience hold protest signs in a meeting room
Community members at an unusually lively meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission in January 2019 (Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)

This article is part of our special series Power by the People: Clean Energy from the Grassroots.

Some of the most powerful gatekeepers of the clean energy transition are almost completely unknown to the public.

I’m talking about public utility commissioners. In every U.S. state, these individuals regulate for-profit monopoly utilities, also called investor-owned utilities,” on behalf of the public. More than two-thirds of U.S. electricity customers are served by investor-owned utilities, so there’s a good chance that a public utility commission (PUC) is overseeing the energy decisions where you live. But too often, their operations are cloaked in arcane language and procedures, and they remain inaccessible to the very communities they are tasked with serving.

That’s a problem because these utility regulators wield tremendous leverage over how quickly or slowly a state can transition from fossil fuels to clean energy for the power sector, transportation and buildings. They can approve or block the stuff that needs to get built to deliver a clean, electrified future, from renewable plants and batteries to transmission lines to electric-vehicle charging infrastructure. They also get to decide matters crucial to a just transition, such as what a utility owes to coal-plant communities after those facilities shut down.

It’s these folks that really are holding all the cards,” said Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy and one of the few people advocating for customers at the utility commission in Louisiana. Nobody knows who they are, and that has to change, especially if we’re going to make any real headway in reducing energy burdens and greenhouse gases in our state.”

Numerous obstacles dissuade people from engaging with their PUCs. For one thing, their regulatory proceedings tend to be extremely boring. If you’re hoping to skip the meeting and just look for information online, well, many PUC websites take their design cues from the early-2000s internet — and don’t even ask about mobile optimization.

A webpage with an outmoded, old-fashioned website design
Contemporary web design for a public utility commission, circa 2022 (Florida Public Service Commission)

The good news is that when communities push past the obstacles and participate in their PUC’s decision-making process, they can win big for the cause of a cleaner, more just energy system.

People have levers of democratic accountability over who is regulating the utility service that they get, no matter what the business model is,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a philanthropically supported utility watchdog group. (Municipal utilities and electric cooperatives, by the way, usually are not subject to PUC oversight, but they have other forms of democratic governance.)

If you want to get involved and exert more say over your energy future, here are a few ways to get started.

Figure out who your public utility commissioners are

Can you name your public utility commissioners? How about just one of them? The vast majority of Americans can’t, and that’s understandable for such an obscure and technocratic institution.

On the other hand, it’s wild that a handful of people with so much power to speed or throttle the buildout of clean energy operate almost entirely outside the public view. PUCs typically consist of three to five regulators per state, so each of their votes goes a long way. These regulators should be public figures whose votes spur discussion and debate among constituents.

You can help make that happen by finding out who these people actually are in your state. The names and bios of your commissioners are just a few clicks away. Sometimes these organizations are called corporation commissions, or public service commissions, but Googling your state and utility commission” should get you to the right page.

To get you started, here are links to the regulators overseeing the five most populous states:

  1. California
  2. Texas
  3. Florida
  4. New York
  5. Pennsylvania
A screenshot of a public utility commission website
So many fun ways to get involved on the Illinois Commerce Commission's homepage (ICC)

Get involved in choosing your commissioners

There are three ways that someone ends up in the powerful role of utility regulator. They may be:

  • Hand-picked by the governor (37 states, sometimes with input from the legislature).
  • Elected by the people (11 states, but New Mexico voters approved a ballot measure revoking their ability to elect commissioners, so that state will switch to governor-appointed regulators on January 1, 2023. A lawsuit filed by Indigenous nonprofits alleges that the ballot language was misleading because it did not mention that the measure would strip voters of the ability to choose regulators).
  • Selected by state legislators (two states, South Carolina and Virginia).

Each selection method lends a certain flavor to the state’s PUC and creates different opportunities for advocacy.

In states that elect their regulators, voters can choose between candidates who either want to support a transition to clean energy or do not. These races typically fly under the radar, so grassroots organizing for a candidate and mobilizing turnout can have a real impact — but so can campaign donations from utilities. But dark money in elections notwithstanding, elected regulators are directly accountable to the public.

In Arizona, where regulators are elected, the races draw outspoken characters from state politics who have an interest in being able to tell voters that they did something on their behalf. This has led to surprising outcomes — as in 2018, when the all-Republican commission froze investment in any new gas power plants larger than 150 megawatts, something still unheard of in more progressive states.

When a governor with a strong clean-energy stance picks commissioners, they can be capable allies in executing a transition to clean energy. In 2015, Hawaii Governor David Ige (D) signed the nation’s first state-level commitment to ending carbon emissions from electricity. A few years later, when utility Hawaiian Electric’s buildout of renewables to replace a retiring coal plant fell behind schedule, Ige’s pick for lead utility regulator provided critical oversight. PUC Chair Jay Griffin, who previously earned a doctorate researching clean and distributed energy technologies, used his position to force a public reckoning on speeding the delivery of clean energy and approved plans to pay households for sharing their solar generation in the evening hours.

In states that don’t elect commissioners, the public still can pressure governors or legislators to appoint commissioners qualified to lead in this time of energy transition, Pomerantz noted. Public engagement could push politicians to find regulators who have the technical chops to think through the departure from status quo grid operations.

There are huge ways to have influence over this process that don’t require you to have technical or legal expertise,” Pomerantz said.

Follow and support advocates you trust

A cadre of advocates regularly wade through the muck of PUC bureaucracy on behalf of the public. They exude a scrappy-nonprofit-David versus monopoly-utility-Goliath energy, and they enjoy calling out utility shenanigans on Twitter. To get a handle on what’s really going on, track down the people doing this work in your state, subscribe to their newsletters or Twitter feeds, and see what pressing regulatory battles they’re engaging in.

These plugged-in advocates can flag the rare moments in hours-long regulatory hearings when the sparks really fly. That way, you can tune into the juicy parts and skip the snooze-inducing procedural matters. And they’re often skilled at distilling reams of bureaucratic jargon into concise summaries about the impact a utility request will have on regular people. Will your bill go up? Will pollution hit your neighborhood? Is something fishy going on? These advocates know how to spot such things and alert you to them.

Speak up on issues you care about

Once you find an issue that resonates with you, let the commission know by calling, writing a letter or emailing them about it.

The commission is actually quite responsive when there is a bump in phone calls,” Burke said of the Louisiana regulatory board. Directly reaching out to the commission to say, I have a problem and I need help,’ is a powerful thing, especially if you have more than one person calling.”

Even the oft-forgotten communication method of faxes can get results, she added; if staff members get to the office and find the floor covered in faxed letters about a pending issue, that gets their attention.

You can also write letters to the editor at local newspapers calling attention to issues coming up before the commission as a way to focus external attention on the matter.

Public-meeting laws in place in many states require that community members are given the opportunity to comment at PUC meetings. But in Louisiana, for instance, citizen testimony almost never happens, Burke said, in part because so few people know about the meetings. Until just last year, there was no way to watch hearings without walking into the right room somewhere in Baton Rouge — the practices of livestreaming and archiving the meetings online are new developments.

What’s more, PUC hearings are generally rife with logistical obstacles. For instance, meetings are often scheduled during typical work hours, which aren’t very accessible to most people. Utility lawyers and well-heeled advocates can appear at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, but that’s tough for the public,” Pomerantz said.

Commissions can do a lot more to invite the public into the decision-making process, Pomerantz added. Basic steps that are still far from standard include: distributing information about major proceedings in the languages spoken by impacted communities; proactively reaching out to chronically underrepresented communities; and reimbursing community members for the costs they incur while intervening in a case.

There’s no doubt, though, that when community members engage directly, they can influence the process. Recently, Arizona utility Salt River Project wanted to drastically expand a gas plant that just so happened to sit in a historically Black neighborhood in Phoenix. The community chartered a bus and brought in dozens of residents to protest against the fossil buildout at a regulatory hearing in April. Later that day, the regulators rejected the utility’s plan.

Here’s a short video that sums up the key points covered in this article. Share it with anyone you know who wants to get more involved in state and local energy decisions!

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.