“To Shape the Value of Solar Study Before it Starts”
For 18 months, we’ve reported to Arizonans the evidence we’ve uncovered that indicates public business between captured regulators and utility lobbyists is taking place via text messages to conceal their communications.
Now a small batch of texts between Lon Huber, Arizona’s Residential Utility Consumer Office’s (RUCO) favorite consultant, and Arizona Public Service (APS) lobbyist Greg Bernosky shows the two cooperating to steer a critical, upcoming Value of Solar (VOS) study on which future residential rooftop solar pricing will be based.
Last fall, Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Burns was pushing to see APS’s books to examine the utility’s political spending. Other questions had been raised about the Commission by Checks and Balances Project, the media, and others.
Then on October 20, 2015, the Commission approved APS’s request to withdraw its application to raise monthly fees for residential rooftop solar customers from $5 to $21 per month. Instead, it ordered a Value of Solar study to be conducted before any new rate hikes would be considered.
This obscure study is due later this year. But were the conclusions baked in the cake since the beginning?
Who Does RUCO Serve?
RUCO describes itself on its website as “Serving Arizona’s Residential Utility Consumers Since 1983” when it was “established by the Arizona Legislature to represent the interests of residential utility ratepayers [emphasis added] in rate-related proceedings involving public service corporations before the Arizona Corporation Commission.”
But whose interests are really being represented?
On August 4, 2015, an ACC administrative law judge issued a decision to recommend the full Commission dismiss APS’s request to raise access fees for rooftop solar customers. Huber – contracted by RUCO at $8,000 for 40 hours of work per month to lead a team and represent the interests of ratepayers – texted APS’s Bernosky as soon as he’d read it.
The shared disappointment between Bernosky (“Greg Aps”) and Huber about the failure to raise rates on solar customers is palpable. (You can read the texts provided to us in their entirely by clicking HERE.)
The following month, Huber texted again:
Nowhere in the Huber’s contract’s “Scope of Work” is coordinating with utilities mentioned. Ten days later, Huber texted Bernosky about how they might “steer” a Value of Solar (VOS) study.
After the Commission voted to approve the VOS study, Bernosky texted Huber that he had gotten RUCO’s chief, David Tenney, to approve Huber talking with APS staff.
Two weeks later, APS’s director of regulation and compliance texted the consumer agency’s consultant again:
Rooftop solar entrepeneurs and advocates wanted the VOS study considered as part of a rate-case. But the Commission and APS pushed back. Could it be that with a final VOS study favorable to utility interests, APS and other utilities could ask for and get even higher rates that could decimate rooftop solar developers once and for all? Did they need the VOS study to once and for all vanquish the rooftop solar entrepeneurs?
Likely Voters See ACC Corruption
Despite Burn’s principled stand for transparency, the actions of others on the Commission has crashed its credibility. A poll taken March 1-3, 2016, by Pulse Opinion Research showed that 52% of likely voters see the body as “somewhat” or “very” corrupt, in contrast to only 31% who responded “honest” or “somewhat honest.”
Why did APS like the Value of Solar study so much? Bernosky and Huber were present during the hearing and texted back and forth, when Bernosky references Pinnacle West attorney Thomas Loquvam:
A little over an hour later, Huber texted the APS director again:
“To shape the value of [of solar] study before it starts,” texted Huber – his recurrent theme. Bernosky texted back immediately that his boss, Barbara Lockwood, vice president of regulation and APS’s lead lobbyist with the Commission, was “on it.”
Value of Solar Study
The fight in Arizona, as in other states, stems from utility efforts to scale back consumer solar choice by restricting net metering – a mechanism that allows rooftop solar households to sell excess electricity back to the grid and earn credits to reduce the monthly bill. The latest episode of this effort appears to be the Commission’s valuation of solar energy.
While utilities continue to raise talking points from the national utility lobby, Edison Electric Institute, Huber and Bernosky’s text messages appear to indicate they are at the same time working hard to ensure that when the Value of Solar study comes out later this year, its conclusions are in APS’s favor.
Scott Peterson is executive director of Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.