Arguing against a utility before state regulators can feel like a David and Goliath battle.
Utilities routinely spend millions on experts, attorneys, and computer modeling to support their requests to raise rates, upgrade equipment, or try out new programs.
Consumer or environmental groups that lack the resources to dissect complicated testimony or follow cases for months on end can struggle to influence outcomes.
A new Minnesota law aims to help level the playing field for organizations seeking a voice at the Public Utilities Commission.
Starting this fall, small nonprofits that argue before the commission will be eligible to seek compensation for sharing testimony or expertise that ends up shaping commissioners’ decisions.
Those payments were already available to groups intervening in utility rate cases, but the new law expands them to a wider range of cases. They include cases in which utilities are seeking permission to implement pilot programs, collect money for infrastructure projects, or win approval for performance measures.
Former state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, a Democrat who represented a suburban district south of Minneapolis, lobbied to expand intervenor compensation on behalf of several BIPOC organizations. “Intervenor” is utility commission jargon for a group or individual that represents a stakeholder throughout a case. Torres Ray said she hopes the change helps regulators hear more from groups representing disadvantaged communities.
“It will allow tribal nations and small-scale nonprofit organizations to participate in the process,” she said. “It gives these organizations the tools and the compensation to effectively do this advocacy on behalf of people that may or may not be there [at commission hearings] and typically are not because they cannot afford to be.”
Public Utility Commission cases are where some of the most important decisions about energy take place, from where electricity comes from to how much customers pay for it, explained Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, which advocates for ratepayers. Participating in these cases is also “difficult, time intensive and resource intensive.” Intervenors must make verbal and written arguments in a certain way before the commission. She said personal testimony can play a role, but experts also play a prominent role in the proceedings.
Public Utilities Commissioner Joseph Sullivan said he and his colleagues welcome the new law.
“We want people to be involved; we want Minnesotans to take advantage of the opportunity to weigh in on what’s going on in the energy world,” Sullivan said.
The legislation defines what kinds of cases allow for payment to intervenors and requires periodic reporting on the program. Compensation for most cases will top out at $50,000, with a $75,000 limit for certain proceedings. No organization can recover more than $200,000 annually.
The money can be used to pay for staff or consultants’ time and costs related to preparation, filings, hearings, and stakeholder meetings, but not overhead expenses. No organization with an annual budget larger than $600,000 or more than 30 full-time employees is eligible for the payments.
The commission has granted compensation in rate cases eight times and declined one request. The Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota and the Energy CENTS Coalition are the only groups that have received the payments in the past.
Advocates expect the number of organizations and individuals receiving compensation to grow because it will now be available for more types of cases. It won’t be without risk for intervenors, though.
The commission will consider payment only after issuing an order or judgment, often months after groups provide testimony, providing no guarantee of reimbursement. Rewards will be based on whether the organization’s feedback shows up in the commission’s decisions.
The money will come from utilities and their ratepayers, not the commission or taxpayers. The law caps the intervenor budget at $275,000 for Minnesota Power and $1.25 million for Xcel Energy, with a smaller amount for Otter Tail Power.
Marcus Mills, environmental strategist for Black Visions Minnesota and board vice president for Community Power, a coalition advocating for local clean energy, said the changes could bring more diversity into the regulatory process.
Community Power generally does not have a budget to provide expert testimony at regulatory hearings, but it did pay a consultant a few years ago to speak to policymakers about a concept called inclusive financing. The nonprofit might consider intervening more often in the future, Mills said.
Kevin Pranis, marketing manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America for Minnesota and North Dakota, is among the law’s critics. The state government already pays civil servants to look after the public’s interests, he said. The law may also pay groups that already have the resources to participate in hearings.
“That’s a hard sell, not just for our members, but for the general public,” Pranis said.
Unions are not eligible for compensation pay, and he does not think many groups will participate because the risk of hiring an expert and not getting reimbursed will be too significant. Instead of intervenor pay, he has suggested the commission create an ombudsperson to help organizations understand the process and how to present their opinions.
Levenson-Falk is more optimistic about the potential impact: “I hope it will provide the support needed to get more diversity of viewpoints represented in these proceedings.”