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Guest editorial

Rocky Mountain Power & the Utah Public Service Commission – A Cozy Relationship

David Hedderly Smith, Park City

Two weeks ago I received a letter from the President and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, telling me, a RMP net metering customer (we installed 30 solar panels on the roof of our home in Pinebrook in 2011) about a proposed net metering tariff the company has filed with the Utah Public Service Commission. She made it clear that the tariff change (i.e., rate increase) would only apply to new net metering (i.e., rooftop solar) customers in Utah and not affect rates of existing customers like us and any final rate increase would be set by the Utah Public Service Commission after a public process. She also advised that I could go to a web site, http://utahsolarworks.com, for more information. So I did.
The website told me that rooftop solar customers weren’t paying their fair share of Rocky Mountain Power’s costs.. It also told me that in November 2015 the Utah Public Service Commission had asked Rocky Mountain Power to study the costs and benefits of net metering in Utah, and based on that, to propose new metering rates. This sounded like the farmer asking the fox how to set up security around the hen house!
We’ve lived here over 30 years, and I remember various times when control of Utah’s presumed consumer watchdogs has been given to those whom the watchdogs are supposed to watch. So I looked at the Utah Public Service Commission’s members.
The Commission essentially regulates electric, gas, telecom and water utilities in the state. Its stated goals include ensuring safe, reliable, adequate, and reasonably priced utility services.
The three Commissioners are all lawyers appointed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert. One has been a career bureaucrat working for the state on consumer protection, consumer services and public utilities matters since he left law school fifteen years ago. One has previously represented energy and telecommunications utility companies in administrative hearings and worked as manager of the Legal Division of a public utility holding company. The third served as the Commission’s legal counsel for two years immediately prior to his appointment to the Commission in June of 2015; prior to then he spent two years as a senior attorney for an energy and utility company in Florida and prior to then four and a half years as Senior Counsel for PacifiCorp. The PacifiCorp connection is important to note. Rocky Mountain Power is a subsidiary of PacifiCorp (which itself is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy).
Let’s just assume that Rocky Mountain Power, PacifiCorp and maybe even Berkshire Hathaway are heavy contributors to our Governor’s campaigns and causes. Buying influence with political contributions seems to be tolerated in Utah, but the connection between the Governor, the Commission and Rocky Mountain Power gets even deeper and darker when the Commission hires PacifiCorp’s former Senior Counsel to become its legal counsel and two years later the Governor appoints that person to the Commission itself. Additionally, this past September Rocky Mountain Power hired Jon Cox, Governor Herbert’s Communications Director, to oversee the company’s government relations.
Draw your own conclusions. We have a Public Service Commission loaded with electric power industry legal veterans, all appointed by the Governor. We have a Public Service Commission that hired a former PacifiCorp Senior Counsel to represent the Public Service Commission in dealings with PacifiCorp. And we seem to have a revolving door employment relationship between the Governor’s office, state government and Rocky Mountain Power et al.
So, notwithstanding the merits or faults of Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed rate increase, just how do you think it’s going to do with Utah’s Public Service Commission?
Dave Hedderly-Smith
Pinebrook


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