Hot topic. Cold travels.
When your mission is centered around working with electric utility regulators to implement rules, you want to be there when regulators from across the country get together.
This happens three times a year under the umbrella of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), and at least one representative of IREC participates. Each state commission regulates the state’s investor-owned utilities in the electric, gas, water and telecom arenas. For the electric sector, that means that these are the people regulating about three-quarters of all electric service. With net metering gaining utility attention, we knew that the topic would be discussed, so I attended the most recent meeting along with IREC President/CEO Jane Weissman and Larry Chaset, another attorney who represents IREC.
NARUC covers all 50 utility commissions, plus Washington, D.C., with each state typically represented at these meetings by at least a few commissioners and/or staffers. Each state has three to seven commissioners, and a staff of from dozens to hundreds depending on the state’s size. The NARUC meetings provide a unique opportunity to informally engage with commissioners and staff, to hear their thoughts on pressing matters of the day, and to see what they are learning about those matters in NARUC meetings.
The NARUC Winter Committee Meetings always take place over four days in February in Washington D.C. (in this one respect, I do have some questions about NARUC’s collective deliberative skills, given the predictable weather conditions). Much of what takes place is beyond IREC’s scope – we have never attended a Telecommunications Committee meeting or a Water Committee meeting – but it is still difficult to make it to everything of interest. While there is one committee that focuses on renewable energy, two others touch on relevant issues.
Of NARUC’s eight committees, the Committee on Energy Resources and the Environment (ERE) has long been the most involved in renewable energy and energy efficiency issues. Over a decade ago, its meetings would have a half-dozen audience members, and the committee members were either commissioners enthusiastic about renewable energy and energy efficiency, or commissioners keeping tabs on the enthusiasts. The historic sentiment seemed to be that the ERE Committee dreamed about how renewables and efficiency could make a difference, while the powerful Electricity Committee would make sure that the grid would actually keep working.
How times have changed.
The ERE Committee now has standing-room-only audiences, especially on the topic of net metering. The Electricity Committee is talking about net metering as well, and even the Consumer Affairs Committee has gotten into the discussion – to ask whether net metering leads to increased rates for low-income customers. Net metering even showed up in plenary discussions – with an hour-long discussion between the Edison Electric Institute (the trade group for the investor-owned utilities) and Ralph Cavanaugh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, followed by release of a joint statement by the two organizations.
IREC’s role in NARUC’s deliberations is to be the independent expert that has put forth a methodology to consider the costs and benefits of net metering (see our Regulator’s Guidebook published in 2013). IREC’s attorneys have been on NARUC panels on this issue in the past, and are participating in state utility commission proceedings or preliminary discussions in a dozen states. Getting a chance to talk about our work while at the NARUC meeting is a way to keep commissioners and staffers informed.
How well is IREC doing on this front? Thankfully, the burden does not fall entirely on IREC – there are informed, thoughtful voices from NGOs, the solar industry, and the utility industry. However, there has been a steady drumbeat from many utilities that net metering entails a subsidy and something needs to be done. That message was often repeated in NARUC meetings last month, without support of any study, which is disturbing. While utilities will take in less revenue if customers self-supply, it is not at all clear that their rates of return will be hurt – they may even improve.
IREC needs to continue its efforts to drive analysis that leads to informed decisions, to move the discussion forward on the methodology to be used for that analysis, and to shape the rules that will enable distributed generation for years to come.
NARUC meetings are an occasion for substantial steps forward. And thankfully, we all got out of Washington before another round of polar vortex mayhem.