A Sea of Change in Charleston

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It’s 90 degrees in the shade here in Charleston, South Carolina, where the Southeastern Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (SEARUC) has gathered for its annual meeting. Eleven states’ public utility regulators, from Texas and Arkansas to Florida and the Carolinas, are represented. This year’s theme is “Effective Utility Regulation – All in the Public Interest.” In a time of increasing cynicism about government, it’s uplifting to focus on elected officials and professional staff who work hard for consumers each day.

It’s also refreshing to be with so many who accept that appropriate regulation is needed to monitor and provide course corrections for the complicated systems that ensure utility services reach millions with nearly 100 percent reliability. Another constant, if unofficial, theme here is change. In over three hours of keynotes, CEOs and Commissioners kept us thinking hard about change patterns and impacts.

Change in the energy industry isn’t easy to discuss, especially in light of the shockwaves that rolled across South Carolina after trying something new (V.C. Summer) that didn’t turn out as planned. However, across the morning, message delivered and received, that a combination of elected officials + regulated industries + consumers + constructive dialogue is absolutely critical to helping our nation and consumers dive into and successfully navigate change in the energy sector.

Investor-owned and not-for-profit utilities alike cited sharp declines in use of coal and increases in renewable generation – and reminded us that was often without any prodding from statutory Renewable Portfolio Standards.

Not one CEO or regulator here speculated about a 100 percent renewables future. Nearly all touched on the continuing need for natural gas to fill coming gaps caused by retirement of baseload coal and nuclear and to support intermittent renewable generation. DOE’s Bruce Walker shared a new storage research program aimed at developing batteries that can last ten hours or more.

South Carolina’s Mignon Clyburn warned against broadband complacency; too many U.S. citizens reside in a “digital canyon” and can’t participate in the energy evolution. South Carolina electric cooperative leader Mike Couick agreed – utilities aren’t too big to change, but without widespread connectivity, are bound to the expansive “steel and concrete” physical manifestations of the 20th century utility business model. Duke CEO Lynn Good brought the consumer into the room, discussing extensive survey work and noting the customers’ “uniquely loud voice” and expectation that utility providers talk to them in language they can understand.

Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning put consumer affordability issues front and center and created enthusiasm around the idea that “energy policy done right can give people hope,” citing the energy sector as a driver for economic freedom and job creation. If we all remember one motto from the morning, it might be Tom’s call for utilities, in partnership with regulators, to “learn, influence, compete and repeat” to navigate and successfully cross the sea of change.

At PACE, we endorse the idea that working together, utilities and regulators can successfully navigate the sea change in the energy sector all while benefiting consumers and powering  America’s economy.