From Scott Carlberg

The Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) in South Carolina has important duties, especially when there is so much energy industry change in the air. Information about this committee is here on the SC Legislative page. The page takes some study to get to know. Two PURC activities Energy Consumers of the Carolinas notes:

  • First, the PURC reviews applications of individuals who want to serve on the SC Public Service Commission (PSC), a current chief activity for the group. It screens the applications and recommends to the legislature people the committee feels are qualified for PSC election. The Committee made recommendations for the PSC earlier this year, though an SC House member pushed for rejection. Those candidates were rejected.
  • Second, the PURC reviews, screens and recommends candidates for the Santee Cooper Board of Directors. That is a big responsibility for the PURC and customers of Santee Cooper.  The Board of Santee Cooper has sole approval of rates that Santee charges its customers, there is not an independent oversight of Santee Cooper like the PSC has in rates charged by investor-owned utilities like Duke Energy and SCE&G.

This column focuses on the PURC role to recommend candidates for the PSC. The SC PSC, always an important factor in the lives of consumers, has big tasks on its plate that range from the VC Summer nuclear plant to more decisions about Santee Cooper. That is in addition to regular business.

Energy Consumers of the Carolinas understands the importance of the tasks the Committee faces as the PSC and the energy industry attract so many headlines and emotions. The Committee’s purpose is clear, however. It has a  direction to follow as it considers its recommended candidates. From the PSC: “In order to serve on the South Carolina Public Service Commission, each member must have a baccalaureate or more advanced degree from a recognized institution of higher learning requiring face-to-face contact between its students and instructors prior to completion of the academic program, an institution of higher learning that has been accredited by a regional or national accrediting body, or an institution of higher learning chartered before 1962.”

Candidate qualifications are further defined. In an advertisement about the PSC vacancies late last year: “It is preferred that a commissioner have a background of substantial duration in one of the following areas: (a) energy; (b) telecommunications; (c) consumer protection and advocacy; (d) water and wastewater; (e) finance, economics, and statistics; (f) accounting; (g) engineering; or (h) law.”

Becoming a Public Service Commissioner is significant work when done well – a lot of study, analysis, listening, understanding various viewpoints, and the strength to keep  the public need and good in mind with all its financial, business, and social concerns. It is a job that represents all citizens. Not to mention that it is all done in the public eye.

There’s also the issue of industry change for PSC members to factor. The utility industry is changing fast and needs regulators who understand pragmatic yet innovative change; how that can be accomplished in an industry not been known for its entrepreneurship over the past decades. An example. The drive for innovation has been evident in the capability known as distributed energy resources (DER), or smaller facilities (compared to traditional central generation), like solar and wind. Big changes there as technology advances new ways to make and deliver electricity. A state PSC (or PUC as it is called in some states) impact the road map,  timing and effectively some methods of technology implementation. That is a big deal for consumers. 

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners explains the innovation need: “The electrical distribution system is evolving. As DERs continue to gain popularity and use, jurisdictions will need to understand, plan for, and develop appropriate procedures, regulations, and systems to accommodate their use. As discussed in this paper, there are a number of markets and market services that states and utility companies will need to determine to proceed. Additionally, policy, operation, and functional considerations for distribution system planning need to be taken into account by regulators as they are embarking on grid modernization initiatives in their states. Distribution systems will need innovative approaches for system operation, grid planning, interconnection procedures, and coordination with transmission system and wholesale markets to handle higher DER penetration rates, and still remain secure and reliable. As the smart grid continues to evolve, there will be more opportunities for efficiency improvements through market-based transactions between energy consumers and producers, and new economic tools and processes will be needed to enable these changes. One-size does not fit all and states need to decide what measures to take given their unique jurisdictional landscape, policy objectives, and customer needs.” 

That immense innovation need is on the plate for the candidates who become Public Service Commissioners. As ECC says, being a Public Service Commissioner is significant work when done well. Not something to enter lightly for anyone. So, the Public Utilities Review Committee in South Carolina has a big responsibility for consumers. Its recommendations, and the actions of the legislature make a big difference in the lives of many people.