- A growing number of state utility regulators have experience with environmental issues while declining numbers are “patronage” appointments, according to a Brown University analysis of the professional backgrounds of more than 800 commissioners who served between 2000 and 2020.
- The number of commissioners that have previously worked with environmental issues more than doubled from 12% in 2000 to 29% in 2020, according to the analysis. About a quarter of commissioners in 2020 had experience with the utility and fossil fuel industries. Some commissioners had experience in more than one of the research’s categories.
- As climate change has become a more pressing issue, “people in the renewable energy industry all of the sudden became a little more valuable,” said Jared Heern, author of the research.
Heern’s paper highlights the growing diversity of experience in the backgrounds of utility regulators, but also the need to guard against “industry capture” where commissioners tend to vote with the interests of industries where they previously worked.
“The number of commissioners that have worked for the industries they are now regulating has almost doubled from 15% to 28%,” the paper concluded.
“PUC proceedings are so complex and technical and mired down in so many economic projections and lots of other data,” Heern said. And because utilities are entitled to a return on their investment, it can be “a little easier to make those justifications” when a commissioner has utility experience.
Heern is a postdoctoral research associate in environment and society at Brown, and is affiliated with the Climate Social Science Network.
The main categories Heern examined include backgrounds in utility regulation, elected office, a governor’s network, the utility industry and environmental positions which could include working for a state department of natural resources, in environmental education or advocacy.
The most “common path” to the PUC is to have previously worked in utility regulation, including directly for a commission or serving on state legislature oversight committees. Heern wrote that it “seems positive that this is not a polarized situation, both Democratic (44%) and Republican (40%) commissioners possess this experience in similar levels.”
"The one category where it is apparent there is a partisan trend is that 30% of Democratic commissioners have environmental backgrounds compared to only 10% of Republican commissioners,” the paper noted.
One category of experience where Heern noted a decline among commissioners was for those coming up through the “governor’s network.”
“Those sort of direct connections where one could potentially level some sort of patronage claims,” Heern said.
On the whole, Heern sees positives for utility regulation.
“Commissioners with utility regulation backgrounds [have] gone from like one-in-three in the early 2000s to almost like one-in-two,” he said. That can include a wide range of work and education and “my guess is that would be pretty positive for the public utility commission, that there's more of that experience and expertise.”
At first glance, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners said Heern’s research didn’t raise any major surprises.
“We can say, anecdotally, that there is somewhat of a changing demographic among commissioners, as we are seeing more with environmental backgrounds,” a spokesperson for NARUC said. “Those who have backgrounds working in governors’ offices and their state legislature is still common.”
The group noted it provides resources, trainings, committees and meetings that “help fill needed information gaps.”
“Our partnerships with the federal government and other entities help us develop strong programs to support these educational endeavors,” NARUC said.
“The best characteristic is intellectual curiosity and a willingness to make decisions, along with a willingness to ask questions and read,” NARUC Executive Director Greg White said in a statement. Job performance ultimately “depends on the individual and how they approach the job.”