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Public Service Commission Needs Watching

Before explaining our headline, we think our readers ought to be acquainted (or reacquainted) with the role of DC’s Public Service Commission (PSC) in our lives. To that end, here’s what passes as a mission statement –- slightly edited — on its website:

“The mission of the [PSC] . . . is to serve the public interest by ensuring that financially healthy electric, natural gas and telecommunications companies provide safe, reliable and quality utility services at reasonable rates for District of Columbia residential, business and government customers.”

As for why we are concerned about whether DC residents will be able to rely on the PSC’s commission members to truly put us before their own pre-conceived policy notions (including loyalties to previous employers or clients) might be an open question –- particularly in light of the DC council’s late December 2018 less than unanimous confirmation of Greer Gillis to serve.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s Committee on Business and Economic Development did approve her nomination but with two important holdouts –- Ward 6’s Charles Allen who voted ‘no’ and Ward 7’s Vincent Gray who voted ‘present’ for the reason of not having been “satisfied” with her answers.

While the committee’s two holdouts alone would not have raised any real concern, it was the significant opposition by the council when the final confirmation vote was taken, given that five highly regarded members were opposed: Chairman Mendelson, joined by at-large members Silverman and Grasso, Ward 3’s Cheh, and Ward 6’s Allen.

Curiously, notwithstanding that the DC Sierra Club and the Coalition for a Resilient DC, joined by the DC Federation of Civic Associations and others had requested a formal hearing with two weeks’ notice to give the public the opportunity to review and comment on this important nomination, the committee declined and simply moved on to vote.

Those five ‘no’ votes clearly raise a huge red flag and confirm for us the serious concerns raised in early December by two important local environmental watchdog organizations – the DC Sierra Club and the Coalition.

In a joint statement issued on December 11th, both groups questioned the nominee’s qualifications for such a critical position, stating that while she has “a record of accomplishment in the transportation sector but minimal experience in the energy sector.” Explaining their concern, they further stated, “With oversight over electric and gas utilities, the [PSC] and its three commissioners play a vital role in shaping our city’s future use of energy.”

Especially disturbing to us was what they had to say about the vetting and selection process by the Mayor’s office: “Highly qualified DC residents were available in the applicant pool. Several candidates who were interviewed by the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments have extensive experience with regulatory affairs; electric, gas, or telecom utilities; PSC responsibilities including rate-setting; and administrative law or adjudication.”

This surely raises serious questions about how the nominations review and decision-making process actually worked in the Mayor’s office. What were the negatives about those others being reviewed or –- and we are reluctant to suggest, but prior questionable nominations by the Mayor do give pause –- was there an unknown connection between the Mayor and the nominee? Was this part of a pattern with the Mayor?

The Coalition’s Executive Director Nikhil Balakumar added to our concerns with the following observation that he shared with us at our request:

“The Council’s confirmation of Ms. Gillis is disappointing and deeply concerning given the lack of experience in utility regulation but hope Ms. Gillis will engage with local stakeholders on the major issues before the PSC. Utilities are incentivized to over forecast energy growth paving the way for often unnecessary and expensive infrastructure investments when cheaper, cleaner alternatives are available. It will be critical for Ms. Gillis to get up to speed on these issues to protect ratepayers while achieving DC’s climate goals.”

To this, we need to call attention to the council’s path-breaking action of December 18th when it unanimously enacted the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act of 2018, which mandates that 100% of the city’s electricity come from renewable power by the year 2032.

The DC Sierra Club’s president, Mark Rodeffer, quite rightly responded to this long-worked for victory by observing that Washington is nowa model for the rest of the nation on climate action, leading the way to reducing greenhouse emissions through smart investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency,” further noting that “[w]e have spent incalculable time and energy working on this bill and we could not be more gratified by its passage. . . .” We want this prediction to be reality; it will be the PSC’s responsibility to ensure that outcome.

We are in full agreement with the views expressed by the key players, both the citizen groups and the council members who have raised red flags. It is for these reasons we urge that Councilmember McDuffie commit to assigning as a priority committee time and resources to carry out serious oversight of the PSC’s priorities and initiatives. It is not what the excellent and dedicated staff might be doing; it is the need to ride herd on the chairman and the other two commissioners to ensure that they make decisions that will be truly in the public interest and not in the interests of the regulated utilities (other than to ensure they receive a reasonable rate of return on their investments and operations).


Reader Comment

Thank you for your recent piece highlighting the need for oversight on the PSC.  We hope that the five votes opposing the Mayor’s pick for the PSC sends a message to the Mayor that the old and sad tradition of sending utility cronies to the PSC should come to an end.  The staff of the PSC and District ratepayers deserve better.  McDuffie’s Committee can step up and focus more attention on what the PSC needs to do to lead in this new era of renewables and climate change.

Marchant Wentworth
Wentworth Green Strategies