Report Finds Region’s PUCs Not Ready to Transform Power Grid
March 7, 2023
PROVIDENCE — A report released March 7 by a team from Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab (CDL), Synapse Energy Economics, and Climable found New England’s public utilities commissions may not be ready to handle their evolving role as reliance on electricity grows.
Power Play: Actions for New England’s Equitable Energy Transition, which details findings from a dozen workshops CDL held in each New England state, focuses on the work required to address the climate crisis through decarbonization and electrification. A necessary part of ending fossil fuel use will require a growing reliance on electricity and the power grid, according to the report.
“This means we will increasingly be dependent on an electric grid, and as this reliance on electricity grows, the role of the PUC will also become even more critical,” according to the report’s authors. “Their decisions will impact more people in bigger ways. However, PUCs may not ready for their
The report features a quote from Graham Richard, former CEO of the Advanced Energy Economy Institute: “For making our energy system more secure, clean, and affordable, state public utility commissions are the most important institutions most people don’t know anything about.”
Current PUC processes, policies, and practices don’t allow for equitable participation by all stakeholders, according to the report. One barrier to more meaningful participation is language accessibility, as materials and meetings are not translated or interpreted.
Another barrier is the availability of easy-to-understand materials. Many PUC communications only appear in newspapers. To reach a wider audience, PUCs should create plain language summaries of notices and continue to share them in print, and also across social media, other websites, mailers, and listservs.
“Participation can also improve by proactively inviting stakeholders to the table and then by the PUC demonstrating they take stakeholder input seriously and hold it in the same regard as input from the utility, according to the report. “This may require using a neutral third party to do outreach and check that the PUC has factored in stakeholder feedback.”
From March through November of last year, the CDL team met with stakeholders from all six New England states, including PUC commissioners, state representatives, utility employees, advocates and activists, and community-based organizations. The team hosted in-person and virtual workshops and held one-on-one follow-ups.
This process allowed the team to gather many ideas from a variety of experiences and perspectives, according to Timmons Roberts, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at Brown University and the CDL’s director. He noted many of the people his team spoke with said they want more input in PUC decision-making and that participating in the PUC process is time-consuming, costly, intimidating, overwhelming, and hard to understand.
The report noted state legislatures determine who has the power to take action on climate issues. It noted greenhouse gas reduction (GHG) goals aren’t enough to address regulation of the electric, heating, and transportation sectors; meeting goals requires accountability measures. (Rhode Island’s 2021 Act on Climate law sets mandatory and enforceable reduction targets for GHG emissions, with implementation through legislation and community initiatives.)
Most New England states have a “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS) that requires specific GHG reductions for the electric sector and specifies how to enforce them. The RPS model provides a framework that is being applied to the heating sector and a similar regulation should be created for the transportation sector, according to the report.
Among the report’s concerns and recommendations are:
States need to define environmental justice and include language around equity in all legislation. Legislation needs clear and consistent definitions, goals, and metrics and it must apply to all government agencies.
“Not focusing on equity has led to historical underfunding of low income and environmental justice communities,” according to the report. “It has also led to lower participation rates in things like energy efficiency programs and installation of heat pumps. To flip this narrative, incentives need to be fully redesigned to make participation easier to navigate and financially feasible.”
There is a major shortage of green energy workers, from installers to engineers. Language-accessible training, career buyouts, and paying prevailing wages should be specified in legislation. A commitment to youth workforce development by funding green trade schools and apprenticeships and partnering with community groups to publicize these opportunities will grow the pipeline.
Climate misinformation, when bad actors create a false narrative around what is truly “green,” “smart,” and “clean” or downplay the negative effects of fossil fuels, is a significant problem.
“The goal of these misinformation campaigns is to manipulate public perception and create doubt and confusion, which can lead to inaction on climate issues,” according to the report. “Currently, no legislation around climate misinformation exists in the U.S., so the lobbying groups, political action committees, and organizations that circulate false information are unchecked.”