With renewable power on the rise, many electrical utilities depending on fossil fuels are going through a disaster. Some are embracing the challenges essential to implement clear power, however others are resisting change. A brand new tales collection from Audubon investigates the trade at this significant time. Learn Half 1, Half 2, and Half 3.


Public utility commissions (PUCs) are regulatory our bodies essential to the local weather combat. They exist in each state and have been round for greater than a century, ensuring that utilities present electrical energy at simply and cheap charges. But they’re largely unknown. Most individuals work together with them solely via their electrical energy invoice. However behind the scenes, the businesses are key gamers in regulating the power provide and subsequently america’ carbon emissions. 

Each state has totally different guidelines for a way its PUC (also called a public service fee or utility regulatory fee) operates. Normally comprised of fewer than 10 commissioners appointed by a governor or elected by voters, and supported by generally tons of of staffers, the authorities handle a state’s electrical grid. This work is technical and esoteric. Commissioners calculate electrical energy costs, handle power effectivity packages, and regulate new power sources, together with dwelling photo voltaic panels.

Most of this work is invisible to shoppers, occurring behind the scenes of the facility shops and lightweight switches in our properties. However their contributions are pivotal as states transition from fossil gasoline to wash power to satisfy local weather targets in 30 states thus far. To get there, power producers might want to section out older coal- and gas-burning energy crops and construct in new renewable power websites. This can be a difficult job that may require PUC experience, authority, and enter.

Whereas some PUCs have gotten began on this work, they might be doing extra to deal with local weather change, consultants say. PUCs might be utilizing the instruments they have already got—for instance, calculating the price of totally different power sources—to direct the utilities they oversee to assist renewable power growth and to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions. 

“At this level, public service commissions must be altering their mandates,” says Stephanie Eyocko, an power trade analyst. Conserving international temperatures from rising greater than 1.5 levels Celsius by limiting emissions from the power sector, she says, “undoubtedly must be included as one of many guiding stars that public utility commissions have.”

Admittedly, commissioners utilizing their regulatory instruments to handle greenhouse-gas emissions could be a shift from their founding goal: to forestall utilities’ abuse of energy. When PUCs got here into existence on the flip of the century, governments allowed electrical energy suppliers, together with lots of at present’s investor-owned utilities, to function monopolies over the grid so long as they supplied inexpensive, dependable energy. These governments arrange PUCs to verify utilities don’t hike charges to make the most of shoppers who want electrical energy to outlive.

Over time, although, the grid has developed considerably. Customers’ demand for electrical energy has elevated. How we produce electrical energy has modified, and so has information of how producing that electrical energy impacts the Earth’s local weather and its inhabitants: In 1968 Lyndon B. Johnson’s science advisor warned the electrical utility trade that rising carbon emissions may set off catastrophic local weather results. Electrical energy era now accounts for 1 / 4 of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, a quantity that should fall precipitously to avert local weather crises.

There’s a good argument that PUCs shouldn’t solely stop utilities from unfairly elevating electrical energy prices, but additionally push them to guard shoppers’ futures. Legislators in Maryland, Colorado, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Maine, and Massachusetts agree. Every just lately enacted laws requiring PUCs to think about the consequences of local weather change and assist advance insurance policies that deal with the disaster. “The states which have been best in advancing renewables and powerful greenhouse fuel [limits] have achieved it via legislative mandate,” says David Littell, a former commissioner of the Maine Public Utilities Fee.

Typically these directives are broad and permissive. In Maryland, for instance, final summer time state lawmakers handed Home Invoice 298, which directs the PUC to think about “the safety of the worldwide local weather.” The fee was already evaluating the way it may modernize the grid and scale back prices by trying into power storage, electrical automobiles, and time-of-use charges. It just lately accepted purposes for offshore wind. Now it has a mandate to additional combine local weather prices into its work.

In different states the mandates relate to particular legal guidelines. In Rhode Island, commissioners are evaluating implement a brand new authorized goal, set final summer time, to scale back emissions to zero by 2030. The state PUC has some expertise on this space. It is already answerable for implementing a cap-and-trade program to scale back emissions throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic often called the Regional Greenhouse Fuel. Due to that program, “a few of the prices of carbon air pollution within the electrical sector are already included out there worth,” says Abigail Anthony, who serves on Rhode Island’s public utility fee and the nonprofit Nationwide Affiliation of Regulatory Utility Commissioners board. Now the state can incoporate extra.

There’s room for boldness in what they take into account a local weather value. Anthony argues that “the societal value of carbon air pollution,” reminiscent of stronger storms and rising seas, that aren’t mirrored out there can “rightfully may be attributed to electrical energy consumption.” PUCs may embody these prices in pricing electrical energy calculations, she says. 

Whether or not or not they’re directed by the state, commissions have extra energy than they’re presently utilizing. “Commissioners have discretion within the prices that they take into account, and so they’re not totally making the most of it,” says Alicia Brown, an power analyst with Savannah, Georgia, a metropolis pushing the state’s largest power supplier to supply extra clear electrical energy. Underneath current statues many may ramp up packages that incentivize shoppers to buy energy-efficient home equipment or scale back electrical energy use when demand is excessive, Brown says. And reconsidering power prices to incorporate fossil fuels’ results on the local weather and shoppers may end in new efforts to meaningfully scale back emissions and develop renewable power, say each Eyocko and Brown.

Nonetheless, most PUCs exist to judge the economics of electrical energy, not the prices to individuals from the implications of local weather change or damages to the atmosphere. “The commissions actually aren’t designed [to] and actually do not successfully speed up cleaner era and grid modernization,” Littell says. “They’re designed to manage the established order.” However given the commissions’ purview and experience, that could be altering, and we may quickly discover that the businesses can be taught some new methods.