New York’s Public Service Commission: A Brief Introduction

The Public Service Commission (PSC) has been in the news a lot lately. Audrey Zibelman, chair of the PSC, announced that she will step down in the coming weeks. Longtime commissioner Patricia Acampora is stepping down, and an additional commissioner appointment has been unfilled for two years. With these three vacancies, only commissioners Diane Burman and Gregg Sayre will remain to oversee the PSC. That news is in addition to their meeting this week to discuss the Con Edison rate case, which has major ramifications for New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision Initiative.

With all of this news, we thought this was a great opportunity to take a deeper look at what the PSC does and why it’s so important to New York’s clean energy and sustainability goals. New York’s PSC is the governmental department that manages the rates, services, and oversees New York’s public utilities. The department handles industries that include electric, gas, water, and telecommunications. Five governor appointed officials who oversee the PSC help make important decisions regarding the rates and regulations of public services within the state. It also plays a sizable role in directing utilities to make smart and strategic infrastructure investments and innovations that benefit consumers.

Important issues that are currently on the PSC’s docket include the Consolidated Edison’s (ConEd) rate case and SUEZ water’s rate case. The PSC is confronting SUEZ water with a reduction in rate increases by $960,000, which reduces rate of return on SUEZ water investments. This decision also means rate increases for Rockland County residents served by SUEZ. There is an estimated rate increase of $4.87 by the third year following the decision. SUEZ originally proposed a much larger rate increase, but the PSC sided with consumers, a decision that was praised by environmental groups. The PSC also approved a new rate plan for ConEd, which would increase energy rates by two percent per year for three years. These increases will help pay for ConEd’s efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce demand through infrastructure such as smart meters and micro-grids. Normally, these actions would not be in the best interests of a utility, as they reduce profits, that’s where the PSC comes in–creating incentives that allow utilities to act in the best interests of consumers and the environment.

If Governor Cuomo is not able to act quickly and fill vacancies at the PSC, there is a risk of these critical efforts losing their momentum. With only two commissioners it would be difficult to effectively address important policies, including Governor Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision. The Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) plan focuses on the transition from 20th century energy infrastructure to a more affordable and sustainable energy system that can combat climate change and confront challenges such as the next superstorm Sandy, while bringing new forms of investment and employment opportunities to the state of New York through effective policy. Some are predicting that important policy issues will be tackled during compacted PSC meetings occurring over the next three months, before the official departure of the two commissioners.

The next step for the PSC is to move forward with the development of community solar projects. By clearing out a backlog of inactive proposals, the PSC hopes to be more efficient and swift in implementing new solar projects. Following the implementation of these projects, new measures will need to be taken in order to gauge the energy payment methods. There is current discussion of moving away from the current net-metering approach. This decision is to be made during the next-month. If these policy and rate issues are not addressed before the departure of the commissioners, however, it is possible that resolutions to these subjects will be delayed.

Governor Cuomo will need to swiftly select people to fill these positions. PSC Chair Audrey Zibelman has been a strong leader on creating market-based solutions that help to modernize utilities, clean our energy mix, and fight climate change. We are urging him to select a new leader for the PSC that brings the same level of relevant expertise and commitment to sustainability that PSC Chair Zibelman has exhibited during her tenure.