To the Editor:
The rate case decisions issued by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA)’s over the past year have generated a torrent of public discourse. But they’ve also given way to another trend – an alarming recognition of Connecticut’s burdensome regulatory environment that is causing investors to flee and utility companies to expand elsewhere.
While rate cases bring the most public attention to the work utilities undertake, they are not the lone driver of investors’ unease. The day-to-day relationship between utility companies like UI and Connecticut’s regulatory authority is just as important – both to investors as well as our ability to provide top-tier service to customers. PURA’s other decisions may not generate as much public interest, but they have a similar ability to negatively impact our business if they are not conducted in a manner that balances proper oversight with the flexibility utilities need to get the job done.
Lately, that balance has been out of whack, with routine but important decisions weighed down by a multitude of orders, requirements, and mandatory policies – 267 of them since July of this year alone.
Fulfilling many of these orders will have little, if any, tangible benefit to customers, but all of them are costly for utilities. At the heart of this problem is PURA’s preference for official written communications and over-burdening compliance filings over in-person discussion, which too often leads to misunderstanding and animus.
Take PURA’s most recent draft decision on the annual Non-Residential Renewable Energy Solutions (NRES) Program in Docket #23-08-03. The NRES program is laudable, incentivizing utilities’ large commercial customers to install renewable energy projects like solar panels and fuel cells. Even better, it’s working: As CT Insider reported over the summer, UI is on track to double output through the program in alignment with state goals.
Yet despite the program’s success, PURA issued a perplexing 35 orders in its draft decision. A few of these will likely yield some benefit for customers. For instance, assigning one person to handle all interconnection issues within an NRES project, as order #22 does, will likely alleviate confusion for developers. But most of the orders are highly specific compliance filings with bafflingly short timelines. For instance, UI and Eversource employees are required to update all NRES Program documents, sending to PURA both a clean and redlined version by December 15. This is over 200 pages of documentation, and employees will have just one month to finish the job – a tight timeline even without two federal holidays (Veterans’ Day and Thanksgiving) in between.
Others put an inordinately heavy burden on utilities to solve significant policy challenges. In August 2024, PURA expects a report from Eversource and UI with recommendations on what to do with battery and solar panel waste. While Connecticut’s clean energy transition requires thoughtful analysis on this complex issue, electric distribution companies are not its appropriate leader. PURA should look to policy organizations, think tanks, or the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which devote entire teams to developing recommendations on waste management. Utility employees’ time is better spent improving our customers’ experience as we administer these programs.
Other orders are vague and ill-defined, such as order #29, which requires the utilities’ joint procurement plan to be “sufficiently fleshed out so that it could be approved without modification.” PURA provides no additional guidance on how utilities can meet this standard. Given the number of times PURA has accused UI of failing to meet its standards in our rate case, I would hazard a guess they may have a standard in mind, and failing to expound on it feels like PURA is setting us up to fail.
That feeling resonates these days, as PURA seems to be quick to take any opportunity to penalize utilities for failing to comply with its countless orders. Earlier this year, for instance, UI and our sister companies, Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Natural Gas, were each fined $160,000 – totaling nearly half-a-million dollars – primarily because their webpages on the Medical Protection Program used the word “doctor” instead of “physician and/or APRN.” But what went ignored by PURA was that the language between the companies’ pages was exactly the same because the same Hardship Assistance team serves all three companies.
Eventually, this fine was reduced to a little over $50,000 per company, but the whole incident could have been avoided if PURA prioritized what it used to: discussing these issues in-person with utility employees on a regular basis to sort out such confusion and misunderstanding. In recent years, policymakers have lambasted this practice as anti-consumer. But in reality, countless compliance filings cost the company much and benefit customers little, if at all. In-person discussion better serves customers, allowing utility employees to focus on improving their experience rather than adhering to arbitrary deadlines and mountains of paperwork.
At the end of the day, PURA, UI, and Eversource are all marching towards the same goal: providing customers with safe, reliable power and ensuring they get the value they deserve from their service. In our day-to-day work, I hope to see an end to the burdensome overregulation and a return to the in-person collaborative approach that serves customers better in the end.
Javier Bucobo is the Vice President of Markets and Regulatory Affairs at Avangrid, the parent company of United Illuminating (UI).