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PUC Politics:

Public utility commissions (PUCs) are small, most often three- or five-member regulatory bodies present in all 50 U.S. states that have the important role of overseeing the investor-owned utilities that provide public services like water, gas, telecommunications, and, perhaps most importantly, electrical power. The electrical power sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and will become a more significant contributor as sectors like transportation and building heating electrify, unless the electrical power system is decarbonized and decentralized. PUCs have the ability to prioritize renewable energy sources, retire fossil fuel generation, expand electric vehicle infrastructure, expand incentives for rooftop solar energy, and make policy decisions relevant to many other components of the clean energy transition.

New research from postdoctoral research associate Jared Heern, recently published in Energy Research & Social Science, begins to pull the curtain back on these important climate regulators by introducing a database of the partisanship and professional backgrounds of the over 800 utility commissioners who served in all 50 states from 2000 to 2020.  Extra attention is devoted to connections between utility commissioners and the industries they are regulating and to environmental governance positions and the clean energy industry.

Main findings include: 

  • The number of commissioners that have previously worked with environmental issues has more than doubled from 12% in 2000 to 29% in 2020

  • 25% of commissioners come from the utility/fossil fuel industry

  • 19% come from the environmental field

The findings suggest that stakeholders are recognizing that PUCs are, despite their historic role that does not explicitly include environmental regulation, central decision makers in addressing climate change. Additional analysis compares commissioner experiences between the parties, appointed and elected states, within states, and over time:

Who’s controlling our energy future?
Industry and environmental representation on United States public utility commissions

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Additional research is being conducted on the critical role of public utility commissions in addressing climate change. Building on Dr. Heern’s dissertation project, the Climate and Development Lab is examining the influence of other characteristics of public utility commissioners and utilities on climate policy decisions, e.g., the ideology of commissioners and utility executives (see attached figures). Another ongoing project examines the hugely popular net metering program incentives for rooftop solar generation, why some states are attempting to roll their net metering programs back, and the conditions under which utilities or renewable energy and environmental groups are more successful in influencing net metering policy outcomes.

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