New faces will be joining state utility commissions after Tuesday’s elections, with ramifications for coal, renewables and 100% clean energy mandates.
Overall, voters in 10 states cast ballots this cycle for electric utility regulators, who oversee power providers to make sure their decisions and rates of return are in the public interest (Energywire, Oct. 28).
Two states in the Southwest — Arizona and New Mexico — saw voters back changes that could affect how clean energy planning proceeds. In most races, incumbents prevailed, although the impact on the ground could be different from state to state.
In some states like Georgia, incumbents may remain in power who dislike 100% clean energy mandates but support renewable power, for example. Incumbents in many states, especially if they’re Republicans, stress the need to provide reliable and affordable power, which often relies on fossil fuels.
At least one incumbent utility regulator is on track for another term in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota. One race in Louisiana is going to a runoff with an incumbent, while two incumbents may be heading for separate runoffs in Georgia.
State public service commissions have a role in everything from transmission to a transition to cleaner, more distributed forms of electric generation. How utilities and customers cope with the effects of COVID-19 also remains a huge issue for commissions.
Yet it’s also true that market forces can overtake regulatory planning and policies.
"We talk a lot just now about the climate impacts and the specific generation impacts, but it’s of course also about [electricity] bill impacts," said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy. "And who is in the seat is also going to have a lot to say about how much people are paying and the kinds of programs that are available to reduce those bills and energy burdens that are very much a problem."
Arizona may flip from red to blue in the presidential race, but the outlook is different at the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Election results online yesterday suggest Democrats may pick up just one of the three seats up for grabs this year on the commission. If that outcome holds, it would shift Republicans’ control of the ACC from 4-1 to 3-2. But the GOP would have a major say on whether or how new clean energy standards go forward.
Democrat Anna Tovar has been leading in the commission race, followed by Republicans Lea Márquez Peterson, who was appointed to the commission in 2019, and Jim O’Connor, who has railed against green energy mandates. Two other Democrats and another Republican also were on the ballot. And there were write-in candidates.
The outcome is important because the ACC has been debating new energy rules, with a vote on a full package possible next week (Energywire, Nov. 2). Proposed changes would put Arizona on the path to carbon-free power from major regulated utilities by 2050.
But the ACC would need to review such a plan next year, and Márquez Peterson could have a major say. She voted against a carbon-free amendment recently, and that suggests the current proposal could be in jeopardy once a new commission is in place.
Márquez Peterson told E&E News this week that she supports moving toward 100% carbon-free power. But she opposes a proposed renewable energy mandate, saying that’s not necessary as utilities move in that direction. The package that may receive an ACC vote aims for at least 50% renewable power sales from affected providers by 2035.
"Depending on how the makeup of the new commission stands, that could certainly impact where we go with energy rules," Márquez Peterson said.
In New Mexico, major changes are ahead for the Public Regulation Commission after voters approved a constitutional amendment to make the panel appointed by the governor. The PRC also is slated to drop from five seats to three seats under the plan (Energywire, Nov. 4). Years ago, utility regulators were appointed in the state. The ballot measure makes the process similar to the previous system.
"Back when we had an appointed commission, generally we had, you know, better decisionmaking, more experienced commissioners, less controversy," said Steve Michel, deputy director of Western Resource Advocates’ Clean Energy Program.
Regulators are working under the Energy Transition Act of 2019, which has benchmarks for clean energy and envisions retirements of coal-fueled generation. The plan calls for 100% zero-carbon resources for investor-owned electric utilities by 2045. How that will unfold, including potential renewable and battery storage investments, depends in part on the PRC.
And the state’s Democratic governor may play an important role in the future. The amendment calls for a committee to submit nominees to the governor, who appoints members with consent of the state Senate. Only two commissioners can be from the same political party.
Michel said neither an appointed nor elected setup would provide perfect commissioners all the time. He also said, "Things at the PRC rarely track party lines."
While change is coming, results in this year’s PRC races didn’t deliver major surprises, based on results shown online yesterday.
Democrats are poised to keep their 4-1 edge on the PRC as Cynthia Hall (D) retained her District 1 seat and Joseph Maestas (D) grabbed the District 3 seat being vacated by another Democrat.
Three appointed New Mexico commissioners are expected to be in place in 2023. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) had previously called for PRC reform. The next election for the state’s governor is set for 2022.
Georgia, Montana, Louisiana
In Georgia, incumbent utility regulators Lauren "Bubba" McDonald Jr. and Jason Shaw appeared to have clear leads over their Democratic and Libertarian challengers, but their margins narrowed as counties continue to count ballots. All eyes have been on Georgia as the nation waits to see who will be its next president.
But Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system implementation manager, said during a press conference yesterday that at least one of the races could be headed to a runoff.
McDonald and Shaw each have about half the vote in their races, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.
McDonald is a chief reason why Southern Co.’s Georgia Power unit has added a significant amount of utility-scale solar in recent years. The move has put the Peach State in the top 10 of installed U.S. solar.
Shaw also supports renewable energy, tying it to economic growth in his rural south Georgia region. Both are against clean energy mandates and are proponents of natural gas and nuclear power, however.
Regulators approved Georgia Power’s 20-year long-term energy plan last year, but the PSC is poised to entertain a new one in 2022. Southern is one of several Southeast energy companies with 2050 net-zero carbon goals, but it’s mostly up to its regulated electric and gas companies to implement those directives.
Georgia Power is Southern’s largest regulated electric company, so the pace at which it moves to become a net-zero carbon utility is a bellwether for its parent company’s clean energy future.
Georgia’s election results remain unofficial as precincts and counties continue to count absentee ballots.
The story is different in Montana, home of one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the West. The all-GOP commission will remain that way with one incumbent securing another term and two Republican candidates winning open seats.
Newly elected regulator James Brown recently told E&E News that shifting away from baseload electricity would hurt Montana economically.
What’s more, Montana elected its first Republican governor in years on Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who’s expected to be the next governor, has been outspoken on boosting the state’s coal industry and wants more streamlined permitting of coal, oil and gas.
In Louisiana, results of the state Public Service Commission elections aren’t final, but they look promising for incumbents. That could enable Republicans to retain a 3-2 advantage on the commission, which could have a role in state climate task force plans and policies that affect electric service options for customers.
Democrat Foster Campbell appears on track for reelection in District 5, topping Republican Shane Smiley according to online results.
In District 1, Republican Eric Skrmetta will need a runoff to try to retain his seat by beating a Democratic challenger. That seems possible as Skrmetta and three other Republican challengers combined to earn more than 65% of the vote, according to results available yesterday.
Skrmetta alone got 31%, while Democrat Allen Borne garnered 25%. Their rematch is set for Dec. 5. Runoff turnout may depend in part on what other races drive voters to the polls.
"RUNOFF," Skrmetta said on Twitter. "Onward we march! #VoteRepublican."
Alabama, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota also each had one utility commission race. At press time, unofficial results showed incumbents with enough votes for reelection in every case. All were Republicans except in Nebraska, where the incumbent was a Democrat.