Election day may have come and gone, but the heated fight for a seat on Louisiana's Public Service Commission (PSC) is still going strong. What was a three-way race is now headed for a December runoff between PSC chairman Eric Skrmetta and alternative energy advocate Forest Bradley-Wright.
The race has attracted the attention of solar advocates, who paint Skrmetta as openly hostile to the industry. Bradley-Wright edged the incumbent at the polls, scoring 38% of the vote to his opponent's 37%. But with neither candidate winning an outright majority, Louisiana law stipulates that the race will head to a Dec. 6 runoff. Al Leone, the third candidate who garnered 25% of the vote, has lent his support to Bradley-Wright.
If the candidates split Leone's votes evenly, Bradley-Wright would be elected. But the campaign is far from over, with negative (often Forrest Gump-themed) ads choking the airwaves, and the shocking firebombing of the home of a Bradley-Wright senior staffer stoking intrigue and tension.
A frustrated solar industry in Louisiana
The PSC race has piqued the interest of solar advocates and installers nationwide, who hope to win an ally on a regulatory board they say has viewed renewable resources as more of a threat than an opportunity.
"There's a lot of frustration from the solar community on how one-sided the process has been so far. And obviously the chairman of the commission has a lot of influence in how that process plats out," said Jeff Cantin, the president of Solar Alternatives, an installer in Louisiana.
"It has been such a hard slog just to get a fair conversation about net metering, what distributed renewables should look like and even how the state's larger renewable programs are being handled," Cantin said. "It's obviously created a lot of frustration."
Bradley-Wright has worked with the Alliance for Affordable Energy, helped to create New Orleans’ monthly Solar Roundtable discussions, and fought to protect net-metering rules. He's made renewable energy integration the centerpiece of his campaign.
Skrmetta, on the other hand, is a champion for industry in the state and claims to have saved Louisiana ratepayers $4 billion during his term. On a Facebook page used to promote his campaign, he notes "renewables are pushing up energy costs in Europe and causing industry to look elsewhere. With our low rates, Louisiana stands to benefit. Let's welcome these new businesses and jobs."
While the solar industry has worked to make the race a referendum on rooftop panels, at this point there are no specific policies on the table. The Skrmetta-led PSC has capped distributed solar at 0.5% of a utility's peak demand. Some smaller utilities are already bumping into that cap, which is one reason advocates see this election as so important to the industry's future.
A poll released earlier this year by national advocate Vote Solar sound more than four out of five Louisiana citizens support preserving retail net metering credits, and some 75% were in favor of increasing the number of people allowed to participate in the solar net metering credit program.
Solar advocates suspect of pending report
A study commissioned by the PSC that will examine the value and cost of solar is due out in the coming months, but opponents say the firm regulators have chosen to perform the report, Baton Rouge-based Acadian Consulting, has worked too closely in the past with the fossil fuels and utilities industry.
"What we've been told by some commissioners is that the report will be more of a starting point for the next conversation," said Cantin, "but not the end game. No matter what the study comes out with, the commission can still do whatever they agree on."
But Cantin said the choice of Acadian—which in July completed a report for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on energy assets required to develop the outer continental shelf—"did not put a lot of confidence in the study."
"Whoever leads this process has a huge impact on tone and the direction that conversation goes in," Cantin said. If the PSC chairman is, for instance, opposed to retail net metering than "the starting point for the conversation might be something like a large connection cost and low compensation for excess to the grid, as opposed to a conversation about best practices around the country."
Campaign contributions and the firebombing
Beyond the attack ads and debates over solar, another shocking issue is playing out around the edges of the campaign.
Early on November 5, hours after voting results rolled in, the home and two cars of Bradley-Wright's finance director Mario Zervigon were firebombed while Zervigon and his family slept inside. The victim reportedly awoke at 2:30 am to smoke and was able to get his family to safety before the fire destroyed the two cars and his house (his two cats, unfortunately, did not survive).
Police have not connected the fire directly to the PSC race, but the importance of Zervigon's work in Bradley-Wright's campaign is clear. According to WWL-TV, the Zervigon helped Bradley-Wright raise more than $210,000 during the election, nearly equaling Skrmetta's $215,000 total and allowing the challenger to finance a slate of campaign ads attacking the incumbent.
Skrmetta, whose campaign did not return calls or email requests for comment, raised just over $90,000 from July 28 to Sept. 25, some of that coming from companies like Atmos Energy and AT&T, which the Public Service Commission regulates.
During roughly the same period, campaign reporting forms indicate Bradley-Wright raised just over $49,000 and, true to campaign promises, none of it came from regulated companies. However, Skrmetta has been running ads alleging Bradley-Wright is taking thousands "from those West Coast solar guys."
Finance reports from Bradley-Wright's campaign earlier in the year show donations from solar companies and organizations in Louisiana, as well as a $5,000 donation each from The Alliance for Solar Choice and Sunrun, both based in San Francisco.
WWL-TV reports the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is investigating the blaze at Zervigon's home, along with local authorities. Police say the the intended target was likely not the victims home, but only the cars. Arson is suspected in part because the cars were too far apart for fire to spread from one to another, suggesting the blaze was intentional. Zervigon told WWL-TV off camera he thinks the fire may have been politically motivated.
Skrmetta's campaign issued a statement after the incident:
"My thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Mario Zervigon and his family, and the residents in that neighborhood who have been shaken by this crime," Skrmetta said. "It is my sincere hope that ATF agents, New Orleans Police and Fire officials are successful in finding whoever is responsible for this terrible act and that the culprit or culprits are brought to justice quickly."