From Scott Carlberg

The South Carolina Public Service Commission does one of its periodic evolutions this week. The welfare of South Carolina citizens depend on good choices made for the positions on the Public Service Commission (PSC); choices that show concern for people and understanding of the utility business. The new members are key figures for protecting the public interest in the relationship between utility and consumer.

The legislature elects the new members for the PSC. This year four seats at the PSC will be filled. All those seats align with the state’s congressional districts and the vacant seats are in 1, 2, 5, and 7. Candidates were considered earlier this year for these positions, but none were chosen and new names were solicited.

The PSC’s purpose is to ensure that utilities make the right investments for the public good and the companies can earn a rate of return.

The SC PSC has specific duties, and a robust way to select its members. ECC believes that the SC method to choose PSC members is good when it is managed well.

The SC PSC has come under some criticism considering energy problems in the state, such as the unfinished nuclear plants, Santee Cooper’s various concerns, or pipelines. (Note that the PSC does not regulate Santee Cooper, however. No state agency oversees Santee Cooper.)

What is the process to elect new commissioners?

Commissioners are not elected by citizens. The State of SC strengthened the vetting process for commissioners more than 10 years ago. Applying to be a commissioner involves a background check, including financial; a written test on a broad cross-section of the industry; in-person interviews; hearings; and even checking references and acquaintances. A team judges each candidate and presents those deemed prepared for the job, providing the names of up to seven people per seat.

The SC Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) carries out this process and selects who ought to be considered. The General Assembly acts on the recommendations. This is a critical part of the process to ensure that the people who take those seats have the background and skills to make solid decisions on behalf of the people of South Carolina and the organizations that deliver power to citizens.

The SC PURC issued a September 1 letter that states who it deems  qualified and nominated for the PSC spots. Left, the list of candidates approved in the letter. Use the link to read the letter for yourself.

What are the qualifications to be on the SC PSC?

Each member must have a baccalaureate or more advanced degree from a recognized institution of higher learning. There are requirements about what qualifies as a college or university. Additionally, members must have a background of substantial duration and an expertise in at least one of the following:

  • energy issues
  • telecommunications issues
  • consumer protection and advocacy issues
  • water and wastewater issues
  • finance, economics, and statistics
  • accounting
  • engineering
  • law

The positions pay just over $130,000 per year according to a State of South Carolina website.

The SC PSC gets help. The South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) was created in 2004. Before this the PSC handled all aspects of utility regulation. This structure is to separate the adjudicative function (which remains with the PSC) from the investigative, legal, prosecutorial, and educational roles necessary to utility regulation that are now within the purview of ORS.

Specifically, the ORS has responsibility for the inspection, auditing, and examination of public utilities. The ORS represents the public interest of South Carolina in utility regulation for the major utility industries — electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water/wastewater, and transportation — before the PSC, the court system, the South Carolina General Assembly, and federal regulatory bodies.

It is worth watching to see how the legislature looks at the candidates and the way the PSC skillset shakes out. The welfare of the people of South Carolina depend a lot on the choices made.

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Neighboring states have vastly different systems to choose PSC members:

  • In North Carolina: Commissioners are appointed by the Governor and approved by the Senate. There is no knowledge test to screen candidates.
  • In Georgia: Commissioners have six-year terms through statewide elections and not by the citizens of their district.
  • In Virginia: The Virginia State Corporation Commission has three-members who are appointed by the General Assembly to serve terms of six years.
  • In Tennessee: The Tennessee Public Utility Commission has five part-time commissioners. Appointed: One appointed by the governor, one appointed by the speaker of the senate, one appointed by the speaker of the house of representatives, and two appointed by joint agreement among the governor, the speaker of the senate and the speaker of the house of representatives.