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Guest Opinion, PSC shutting out public interest groups

Again, as in 2017, Kentucky Utilities and Louisville Gas & Electric (KU/LG&E) are requesting rate hikes. The good news is that the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC) must decide whether the hike is fair, just and reasonable. Since these utilities are for-profit monopolies with no marketplace competition, the PSC looks at proposed hikes on behalf of the public, that is, the consumers. To do this, the PSC must collect informed testimony from the Kentucky stakeholders who will be affected. But here is the bad news: for the current rate case the Public Service Commission is trying to slam the door on meaningful public input.

Normally in a PSC rate case, stakeholders, including public interest groups, can intervene. Interveners evaluate the utilities’ justification for the requested changes and submit expert testimony about consequences for stakeholders. This time, in November the PSC disallowed intervention by public interest groups, including the Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, the Sierra Club, Louisville’s Metropolitan Housing Coalition and Louisville’s Association of Community Ministries. The PSC’s action is particularly baffling given the long history of intervention by these groups. The PSC is permitting intervention by commercial and industrial customers.

This decision was unjustified, and the Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ordered that the public interest groups be allowed to participate (and the Attorney General agreed). But undeterred, the PSC is appealing.

The behavior by the Public Service Commission is an abuse of public authority. Unfortunately, this seems in keeping with a trend in Frankfort to restrict citizen access to the capitol. The PSC cannot act on behalf of consumers without understanding their situation. The excluded groups all represent the interests of low-income consumers who are most impacted by rate increases. While individual consumers can submit comments to the PSC, public interests are best represented by organizations with the track record, expertise and resources needed for the official intervention process. …

Particularly worrisome is the utilities’ proposed increase in the basic service charge that customers pay regardless of the amount of energy used. The continued increases in this fixed charge (it also went up in 2017) reduce customer control over our energy bills. We work hard to conserve energy, but our bills rise anyway. This discourages investments in conservation and renewable energy, and especially burdens low- and moderate-income Kentuckians who spend the highest proportion (up to 10 percent) of their incomes on energy.

Also worrisome is that utilities are proposing complex changes to the rate structure. The justifications for these changes are based on widely disputed claims about the effect of rooftop solar on the grid and non-solar customers. All Kentuckians benefit when experts hired by the Sierra Club, who are familiar with rapidly changing energy markets, are able to evaluate the utilities’ claims and give the PSC a complete picture. The wrong rate structure could devastate our local solar industry, and prevent schools, churches, and low-to-moderate income people from using affordable clean energy.

The Public Service Commission should be welcoming the perspective and information that public interest groups provide. PSC attempts to avoid a fair and transparent process call into question their intentions. Have they forgotten that they serve residential and not just corporate and industrial customers, and that residential affordability should indeed be their concern?

Concerned customers can email the PSC at mailto:psc.info@ky.gov and urge them to stop fighting the intervention of public interest groups in case numbers: 2018-00294 (KU) and 2019-00295 (LG&E).

Rachel Norton and Cathy Clement,

Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

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