Voters shape energy policy by choosing utility regulators

  • Gary McCoy,
  • Power lines to Phoenix, Arizona


Cam Cooper raises pedigree Angus cattle along the Big Hole River, a beautiful, rural region of southwest Montana. Like most ranchers, her politics are "quite conservative," she says. "I generally vote Republican." But this November, she'll vote for at least one Democrat: John Vincent, an ally in Cooper's battle against a new transmission line that she says would "destroy the viewshed" of her valley.

Vincent is running for re-election to Montana's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities. Two other PSC seats are also up for grabs, and environmentalists think these low-profile races are among the most important on the ballot. They'll help determine whether Montana continues to rely largely on coal-fired power, or shifts more toward wind power, energy conservation and increased efficiency -- the goals of all three Democratic candidates.

There are similarly important races this year for Arizona's Corporation Commission, which also regulates utilities. And in New Mexico -- the only other Western state that allows voters to elect such regulators, instead of having governors appoint them -- the ballot includes two races for the Public Regulation Commission, and three constitutional amendments that would make the commission more professional and more tightly focused on energy policy.

"It's hard to get people to pay attention" to these elections, says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter. "But they have a huge impact on our energy future."

Hundreds of thousands of Montanans buy their electricity and natural gas from public, investor-owned utilities that are regulated by the PSC. Its five members, who each serve four-year terms, set rates for electricity and gas, approve or reject proposals for new electricity generation projects, and lobby the Legislature to pass laws setting renewable energy standards and other policies, giving them significant influence over the state's approach to energy development.

Vincent wants to develop wind power, but he didn't like Northwestern Energy's plan to spur wind projects by building the $1 billion Mountain States Transmission Intertie line across private land over the objections of landowners like Cooper. Vincent pressured other agencies that decide the line's routes to provide the public with a study of the impacts of traversing Big Hole Valley. He spoke at rural town halls, informing residents about the options, including running the line underground, and the company's proposal has stalled partly because of the resistance. He also supports a 2005 law which calls for most Montana utilities to have 15 percent of their electricity generated by renewable sources by 2015.

If Vincent's alliance with rural landowners like Cooper who might otherwise vote Republican helps him win re-election, he says, "The first priority (for the PSC) should be conservation and efficiency, and next, clean energy sources." And he believes it's OK to slightly raise rates to facilitate this transition, because coal power will become more expensive in the long-term. His challenger, Republican Roger Koopman, backs coal and wants the next Legislature to repeal the renewable energy requirement to "actively promote the lowest possible utility rates."

Montana Conservation Voters is helping raise funds for Vincent's campaign and making calls to thousands of voters, as well as supporting the other Democrats running for PSC seats, incumbent Gail Gutsche and Chuck Tooley. Their Republican opponents, Kirk Bushman and Bob Lake, share Koopman's vision. Vincent and Gutsche allied with PSC chairman Travis Kavulla, a moderate Republican, to approve two wind projects this year, while two hard-line Republicans on the commission voted against them. If the hard-line Republicans win one additional seat, that would "stymie or roll back progress on renewable energy," says Theresa Keaveny, Montana Conservation Voters' director.

The stakes are even higher in Arizona. In the state with more solar potential than any other, the Corporation Commission sets requirements for renewable energy and efficiency without involving the Legislature. Moderate Republicans on the five-member commission in the mid-2000s required regulated utilities to obtain at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and allowed utilities to charge more for that electricity. Those policies helped spur several large solar projects and thousands of rooftop installations. Still, less than 2 percent of Arizona's electricity comes from solar, so more needs to be done to speed up the transition from coal-fired and nuclear power plants, says the Sierra Club's Bahr.

Bahr's group is backing three Democratic candidates -- incumbents Sandra Kennedy and Paul Newman, and newcomer Marcia Busching -- who call themselves "the solar team." They advocate for increasing the requirements and incentives for renewable energy and efficiency. Their opponents are Republicans Bob Burns, Susan Bitter Smith, and incumbent Bob Stump, who express only lukewarm support for such policies.

In New Mexico, the Legislature and the Public Regulation Commission have required utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; incentives for rooftop solar funded by fees paid by all customers have spurred thousands of installations. Clean-energy advocates want the PRC to strengthen those programs, and start requiring utilities to reduce carbon emissions from coal plants.

Democratic renewable energy advocates are expected to win both races for PRC seats. But there will be much at stake for the commission at the ballot box for other reasons. New Mexico's PRC is incredibly powerful, regulating not only utilities, but also insurance companies, taxis, moving vans, buses, pipelines, railroads and fire marshals. And it has a history of corruption and incompetence: In the past 10 years, two commissioners were convicted of felony charges -- including embezzlement and assault -- and others were accused of sexual harassment and cozy relationships with industry. The qualifications for becoming a commissioner are laughably weak -- you only need to be 18 years old, a resident for a year, with no felonies.

The state Legislature put constitutional amendments on the ballot that would strip away some of the PRC's non-energy functions, such as insurance regulation, and toughen the qualifications required to land a seat on the commission. "All of the energy issues are linked to the ballot measures," says John Horning, director of Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians. Horning believes the commission would benefit from a more narrow focus on energy: "We need commissioners who understand the complexity of the issues."

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