Arizona regulator, attorney battle over alleged ties with solar industry
- An outside attorney tapped by Arizona Corporation Commissioner Robert Burns to inquire into potential political influences in the current ratemaking process condemned claims from regulators that he has close ties with the solar industry in a letter this week.
- The letter, addressed to ACC Chairman Doug Little, said "based on your comments [made during the an open staff meeting last week], several media outlets appear to have connected me to the solar industry incorrectly." Regulators had gathered to discuss a utility rate case and Burns's influence inquiry.
- Chairman Little responded in a followup letter, writing that he did not say Hempling had a conflict or worked on "behalf of any solar companies, nor did I state [Hempling] had any financial or professional connection to any solar industries."
While the pair of letters amount to little more than a debate over who said what, their existence underscores the level of suspicion apparent between parties in the Arizona regulatory process.
Since the 2014 cycle, rumors of outside influence on the ACC election process have bedeviled regulators, with both utilities and solar advocates accusing the other side of attempting to insert themselves into the elections for the regulators that oversee their industry.
Last month, Commissioner Burns called for an investigation into such issues, and regulators met in an open staff meeting to discuss his proposal to hire Hempling to conduct it.
In the meeting, Little said he did some research on Hempling's former clients and found the former Georgetown University law professor listed the Energy Foundation as a former client as well as accepted a grant from the organization.
Little said in his letter, he found that former ACC Commissioner Kris Mayes, who is campaigning for Burns' re-election for this upcoming election cycle and heads an independent expediture committee Save our AZ Solar, was a "highly compensated member of the Board of Directors for the Energy Foundation from 2012-2014."
In the staff meeting, he said such a connection "raises a question in my mind whether or not Hempling is an independent party or not. I would submit he’s probably not an appropriate choice for an independent party [for the inquiry.]"
In the end, the Commissioners voted 3-1 to block Burns' push for an inquiry, but said Burns could spend money from his own office budget or subpeona financial records from APS on his own time.
Hempling refuted Little's claims in his letter, saying "there is no connection— other than serendipity—among the facts you cited. Over my 32 years in regulatory law, I have worked for nearly every sector in the electric sector ... Ironically, given the diversity of my practice, I have never represented a solar company."
Money from the Energy Foundation twice funded a client or employer, he added, and only once directly to help him craft a paper on energy efficiency during the mid-1990s.
The meeting came after three days of testimony for the UES rate case, which sought to impose mandatory demand charges on residential solar customers and cut down the retail rate for net metering in its territory.
How regulators ruled on the UES case was expected to set a precedent for upcoming utility proposals in Arizona as well as other states. In the end, regulators approved the proposed rate structure with some amendments — including an alternative option to net metering — but chose to delay a decision regarding solar remuneration rates until after the separate value of solar docket concludes in October.
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