On Saturday, an op ed piece by Warren Stewart appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Mr. Stewart presented a number of ideas to improve the performance of the Consumer Advocate Division’s effectiveness. I was also glad to see that he cited The Power Line as the starting point for a lot of his thinking:
I agree very much with the Sept. 16 post on The Power Line blog (calhounpowerline.com) that we need to rethink the Consumer Advocate Division. It should truly be an independent office. Perhaps this should be an elected position.
Because Mr. Stewart provided the URL to The Power Line, but not the direct link to my post Rethinking the WV PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division, I recommend that you go back and look at that post. While my post may have initiated Mr. Stewart’s own “rethinking,” little of my own rethinking appears in his newspaper piece.
So, for those of you who are coming to The Power Line from Mr. Stewart’s op ed piece, I want to clarify my own thinking on the WV Consumer Advocate Division. First, use the link above to read my September 16 “Rethinking” post.
You will see that the post was focused how the WV CAD is used by the people who control the PSC, in particular the Commissioners themselves and the regulated utilities, to keep the voices of real WV citizens out of the arcane PSC process. Because the CAD was created to “represent consumers,” the real power brokers in PSC cases use the CAD as the useful fiction that only the CAD can represent citizen interests at the PSC.
The CAD has traditionally played this largely powerless role, because (1) it isn’t really independent, because the Consumer Advocate is appointed by the Chairman of the PSC and (2) the CAD’s less than $1 million annual budget for the whole Division is totally inadequate to hire the level of independent expert witnesses needed to really challenge utilities in PSC cases.
Mr. Stewart wants the CAD to “really represent” WV consumers. He also wants WV legislators to play a larger role in PSC cases. He even considers the possibility of electing a Consumer Advocate. He got none of these ideas from my September post.
In my post, I noted that the whole notion of “consumer” is out of date when it comes to electricity in WV. There are many diverse ways in which WV citizens interact with our Ohio-based power companies, and the consumer role is becoming less and less significant, particularly as more and more West Virginians become electricity generators and our out-of-state power companies propose more and more destructive high voltage transmission lines. Here is what I said:
A key part of the CAD’s role is to keep a wide range of citizen voices out of PSC cases by maintaining the illusion that a single PSC agency, dependent on the Commission Chairman to appoint its director every two years, is already representing all consumers.
Of course, the electricity industry impacts WV citizens in many diverse ways. Many “consumers” are now producers of electricity that interact with power companies in entirely new ways. It is ironic that those within the PSC inner circle try to exclude real flesh and blood consumers from cases by claiming that the CAD already represents their “real” interests. As many of us pointed out in the PATH case, we are not simply “consumers,” and we have seen enough of the WV CAD to know that this division of the PSC does not represent our interests, even when we do act solely as consumers.
I would recommend that Mr. Stewart take a look at the transcript of the recently concluded PSC Amos/Mitchell hearing if he wants to see legislative participation in the PSC process. Senate President Jeff Kessler testified for AEP in favor of saddling Appalachian Power customers with higher electric rates by dumping the obsolete coal-fired plants onto their electric bills. Legislators constantly participate in the PSC’s affairs, almost always to serve the interests of WV’s Ohio-based power companies. Del. Skinner’s intervention on behalf of FirstEnergy rate payers is a rare example of positive participation by legislators at the PSC.
In my Rethinking post, I definitely did not advocate for an elected Consumer Advocate. Here is what I suggested:
The transition from one Consumer Advocate to the next is a good time for the PSC, the Legislature and the public to rethink what the CAD contributes to the PSC process. Instead of using the CAD as a roadblock to public participation, the WV PSC, and the CAD itself, should welcome and assist participation in PSC cases. Staff knowledge and access to expert witnesses always results in good analysis and well presented filings during cases.
In the past, Consumer Advocates have fought alone, with small budgets, and they become fatalistic when it comes time to discuss a settlement. Commissioners are always tilted toward the companies’ point of view because of their past connections to the industry and because companies flood cases with lots of highly paid lawyers and experts.
Now, however, more and more people and organizations are beginning to intervene along side the Consumer Advocate Division in major rate cases and other high profile PSC cases. Neither the Commission nor the CAD have adjusted to this new reality.
There is no need to change the CAD or have them advocate for us. My point was that the CAD is an important source of expertise and experience. The CAD could bring a lot more of that expertise to PSC cases if the Division’s budget were increased so they could mount really effective cases. The real rethinking, as I pointed out, is that the role of CAD should be redesigned to allow it to support and assist citizens participating in PSC cases, instead of being used as a mechanism to stifle our many voices.
I thank Mr. Stewart for joining the important public conversation about creating a state electrical system that truly serves the interests of West Virginians, but I want to be clear that he and I have some pretty significant differences as to how we should approach our rethinking of the WV CAD.