PSC CHAIR TED THOMAS

Public Service Commission Chairman Ted Thomas today blasted a motion from an electric co-op that he recuse from a pending case related to solar power generation.

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As I mentioned this morning, the PSC has three docket matters open relative to solar power. To simplify: The debate is over how much electric utilities must pay to solar power generators for the electricity they put in the grid. The conventional utilities want to reduce that payment. The solar power generators think it could cripple a growing industry if power companies get their way.

Into this already festering case came a request last week from the Petit Jean Electric Co-op that Thomas get off the key solar power case. It included a statement from a Missouri rate consultant, Adam Toth, to the co-op that said Thomas had called him and told him that his company’s employee in the case should file a rate tariff that complied with a new state law relating to charges on solar power interconnections. The PSC had ordered the tariff request to be refiled. The consultant said he felt threatened by Thomas’ conversation. He quoted Thomas as saying if the co-op didn’t refile its request he’d disqualify anyone from the consultant’s firm from testifying.

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I sought Thomas’ comment over the weekend and he said he’d file a response today.

Here it is.

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He refused to get off the case and took exception to assertions in Petit Jeans’ filing.

He explains the three pending issues, two relating to net metering — the way costs are apportioned. The utility companies want two-track billing — an end to reimbursements to solar energy generators at the same rate charged to electricity consumed on the grid. The solar companies like things the way they are. Conventional utilities are chafing at the growing competition.

A third docket implements a 2019 law on tariffs. In Thomas’ view, it is non-controversial. But some utilities are resisting. The resistance is delaying interconnections with new solar power providers. This could undermine federal tax benefits available to solar providers, the PSC staff has said. IThe PSC ordered Petit Jean to file tariffs that complied with the law.

But, Thomas said, Petit Jean three times filed tariffs that included two-track billing, despite orders this didn’t comply with the law. Thomas said including the two-track billing would deprive opponents of a chance to be heard and substitute Petit Jean’s judgment for that of the Commission on a matter under deliberation separately.

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“Defiance of commission orders by a regulated monopoly is an attempt by the utility to act as an unregulated monopoly contrary to law and the public interest,” Thomas wrote. He said Petit Jean has ample means, including in court, to appeal adverse Commission decisions. Instead, it has tried to circumvent the law by getting its preferred method of billing adopted as part of a tariff schedule.

Thomas explained his call to Toth resulted from a time limit on PSC decisions on tariff filings. A fourth order that Petit Jean file again appeared to be a “waste of time,” Thomas said, given the consultant’s defiance of previous orders. He said he spoke with Toth Jan. 17 because of the “urgency” of the issue. He said it appeared that an employee of Toth who made the filings appeared to be recommending that the utility defy Commission orders.

Thomas said he did not ask the consultant to change the content of his testimony. In his account, he said the consultant would only undermine the credibility of his firm by testifying in support of a client defying a Commission order.

He said it was false for Toth to assert he’d threatened disqualification of employees of his firm. He noted a member of Toth’s firm had testified since that conversation. He said his tone was an “appropriate” reaction to a utility’s defiance of orders. The Commission ultimately issued the fourth refusal of Petit Jean’s tariff request.

Petit Jean wants Thomas off the net metering case, but an adverse ruling in the tariff case doesn’t justify it because it wasn’t on the merits of the hotly argued net metering case, soon to be decided. Thomas notes that if the consultant’s argument is correct — that a utility can dictate two-channel billing by tariff — the net metering case is unnecessary. Given the complexity of the case and the amount of testimony, it would be unfair to other participants for him to get off the case, he said. He said he had not pre-judged it. He said he’ll continue to do his duty on all three pending cases based on the record.