More on the WV Consumer Advocate Division

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In my post, I noted that the whole notion of “consumer” is out of date when it comes to electricity in WV.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.

5 thoughts on “More on the WV Consumer Advocate Division

  1. If we make it an elected position, it will be filled with coal industry flunkies. That WOULD solve the problem of CAD heads speaking clearly in the early stages of a battle, then going along with a utility-favoring settlement…because now they’ll be in favor from the get-go. There is no way under our current electoral system, to avoid that outcome. Our system guarantees corruption. I’m not sure what the solution is–maybe ask CAG to nominate someone?? Or like you say, at least welcome the participation of outsiders.

    • The CAD is a great resource. It should be used as a resource to help citizens, not as friendly opposition. I believe that the whole idea of a “consumer” advocate is obsolete, because citizens have so many diverse interests. The CAD should be the starting point for citizen participation in the PSC process, not the tool for excluding diverse points of view.

      The Consumer Advocates themselves (and there have only been three in the whole history of the CAD) have all be conscientious and extremely knowledgeable, but they don’t have the staff or the money to live up to their full potential, let alone take on the citizen resource role I am suggesting.

      You are exactly right about statewide elected positions. The Koch brothers rid the AZ PSC of all of the Democratic commissioners in the last election. The AZ PSC, in the state with the best solar power resource, is now on the verge of gutting all of AZ’s solar power initiatives. You don’t have to look any further than WV’s own new Attorney General to see how outside teabagger money has corrupted our own state.

  2. Calhoun
    I would not advocate your position solely either. The WV CAD adequately funded and independently selected would help alot as ratepayer protection. But I would also encourage the three commissioner (really 2) to i to stop precluding intervenors such as Coalition for Reliable Energy etc. from getting into the proceeding or filing an amici. I think it would be naive to believe that the public interest groups could represent the WV ratepayers adequatley without more money and resources. They are better than CAD in my opinion but they do it on shoestring budget and their is only one KN.

    • KF,
      WV law requires that any corporations or organizations that intervene in PSC cases must have attorneys. Only individuals can represent themselves. There are some good reasons for this, which I won’t go into here, but it does mean that organizations must either raise money (in many cases, a lot of money) to hire a lawyer or must rely on an attorney who takes the case for no fee.

      I am not familiar with the Coalition for Reliable Energy. I am active with the Coalition for Reliable

        Power

      . Is that who you mean?

      There is no such thing as an amicus or friend of the court in the PSC process. There are intervenors, who participate fully in the case, and protestants, who file comments but have no other rights in the case.

      Our friends in Wisconsin have a Citizens Utility Board connected to their PSC. The CUB supposedly represents a spectrum of citizen groups, but that board, which serves much the same purpose as our Consumer Advocate, has been captured by power company ideology. In fact, the director of CUB has just left to take a job with the power company owned transmission company that is proposing new HV transmission lines in WI.

      We can’t wave a magic wand and make all the shortcomings of the Consumer Advocate go away. We can also never devise a system for “independently selecting” a Consumer Advocate. The big problem, as it always is with utility regulation, is that the power companies always have to money and political power to corrupt whatever regulatory scheme is put in place.

      The only solution is for WV citizens to get and remain active in these processes to make sure that their interests are protected. I personally don’t care who selects the Consumer Advocate, as long as the CAD exists to help all citizens participate in the process, instead of serving as an obstacle to citizen action.

  3. Bill, you are awesome. This is exactly the kind of inside analysis that I need. I’m fighting the PSC over garbage rates and recycling here in Hampshire County. The PSC process has been opaque and confusing. I can’t afford lawyers. Really, SERIOUSLY Bill, this kind of info is invaluable to me. Thank you so much. Peace, Robin Mills.

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