On Tuesday, voters in Louisiana will cast ballots in the state's increasingly contentious Public Service Commission election. The PSC race has received little media attention beyond the state level, but its outcome will have national implications.
Of course, with midterm election pageantry in full swing, it is hard for a state-level utility commission contest to compete for network attention. The coverage of this year's midterm election has been focused mostly on its unprecedented cost - about $4 billion at last count. In the past month, America has been subjected to a particularly fantastical onslaught of fact-challenged, callous or merely absurd campaign ads. Meanwhile, critical policy landmarks are being considered somewhat beyond the gaudy spotlight.
In the energy sector -- with no sign of federal action on the horizon -- the task of keeping marketplaces dynamic has fallen to state utility commissions. State commissioner appointments have become unlikely battlegrounds between utility monopolies that want to maintain the status quo and renewable energy advocates responding to skyrocketing public demand for cleaner, cheaper energy.
In Louisiana, one of only two states in the union that both directly elects its commissioners and gives the PSC has direct legislative authority, this years' race has outsize potential for national impact. It will likely decide the future of rooftop solar in the state. Louisiana also has one of the nation's fastest growing solar markets; any definitive policy here will have effects on other states looking to diversify their energy portfolios.
The race has three contenders, but the majority of support lies behind two Republicans with markedly different creeds: the incumbent, chairman Eric Skrmetta, and consumer advocate challenger Forest Bradley-Wright.
Skrmetta's commissionership has been marred by accountability issues, a lack of transparency and grave ethical breaches bordering on graft. Since 2009, he has raised $401,000 in campaign financing; of that, $311,000 were contributions from the industries he regulates, or their affiliates. The New Orleans Times-Picayune did some excellent reporting on a number of conflicts of interest created by the current PSC's reliance on utilities for funding.
Skrmetta's voting record displays a clear preference for the established energy utilities. His is an unsettling case of regulatory capture in our public utility commission system -- and it is not the only one. Under Skrmetta, the PSC imposed a cap on how much electricity homes with rooftop solar systems can sell back to the grid, and receive full credit on their energy bill. The cap, which kicks in once that power accounts for only one half of a percent of any utility's peak energy load, is the fourth-most restrictive limitation on renewable generation in the nation.
It has been a common tactic in the utility monopoly playbook to seek limits on so-called net-metering, and head off competition from the emergent solar industry. Utilities assert that customers who supplement utility-generated electricity with their own solar panels are a drain on the system, and that they shift the burden of maintaining the grid to non-solar customers. A number of prominent studies contradict this claim, including a recent release from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
As for allegations about his compromised integrity, Skrmetta demurs. He has been quoted as saying that he is just treating rooftop solar producers like any other utility. "They manufacture power to sell it... and the point is, they are becoming a utility. And as a utility, they need to be regulated."
Skrmetta's principle challenger, Forest Bradley-Wright, told this reporter that he believes the debate to be somewhat more nuanced than that. "Under a monopoly, we must pay the cost, regardless of price, whether we like it or not. With rooftop solar energy, people now do have a choice, because they can generate energy for themselves. And this issue of solar as self-reliance represents a fundamentally American interest; it represents technological innovation, it represents opening new markets that improve peoples' lives."
As the election drew nearer, it seems that Skrmetta began to find Bradley-Wright's formulation threatening. In August, the Advocate reported that he met with a lobbyist from the solar industry in order to broker a deal to lift the cap on net-metering (albeit with a rate still favorable to utilities). His price for the sale of his vote, however, was a guarantee from the solar industry that they would back his campaign instead of Bradley-Wright's. After the Advocate broke the story, Skrmetta claimed that he never offered any deal to the lobbyist, and that the renewable industry was setting him up.
Skrmetta did not respond to requests for comment.
Skrmetta avows that he is impartial, ready to represent solar interests if the public demands greater access to renewable energy. "We'll still have a discussion on it. If there is support for it, then the PSC will vote for it. If there is no support for it, they will not approve it," he told the Advocate. Unfortunately, this is the kind of refuge rhetoric that the Republican establishment is fond of falling back to when pressed on the discrepancy between their stated principles and their actions.
The truth is that solar energy is inherently compatible with conservative ideals. Rooftop solar systems are no longer prohibitively expensive, the province solely of the wealthy or the eco-socialist. It encourages self-reliance across the political and economic spectrum. It shakes the grip of anachronistic corporations that are exempted from competition in the free market. Any politician who claims otherwise has lost sight of what it means to be a Republican, or has, like Skrmetta, simply ceased to take principle into account.
"We are in the 21st century," Bradley-Wright says. "We can expect and we should prepare for dynamic changes in how our energy is produced and consumed in the future. We are going to need people who have a greater degree of independence from the utility companies in order to enact good public policy. We need policies that embrace these new technologies, and bring us their benefits as we go forward."
The majority of energy consumers desire independence. They want to prevent large industry contributions from drowning out their ability to make a difference. They want their representatives held to a greater standard of accountability. And if they are looking for a true conservative to protect their interests, they will have to look for a replacement for Eric Skrmetta.