Georgia Public Service Commissioner might be the most important job you’ve never heard of. While everyone is debating whether to vote for Obama or Romney, the PSC probably has more control over your day–to–day life than either of them.
In a nutshell, the five elected members of the Public Service Commission are in charge of implementing energy policy and approving or denying proposed rate increases by utilities. The current pro-utility makeup of the PSC — four Republicans and one Democrat-turned-Republican — means virtually every requested rate increase has passed.
Steve Oppenheimer, a Democrat, is running to be a potential swing vote on the PSC in favor of consumers. He is running against incumbent Chuck Eaton and Libertarian candidate Brad Ploeger. A former dentist, Oppenheimer has three sons and stays active in energy policy issues.
You’re a successful guy and a happy family man, so why in the world would you run for the relatively thankless task of Public Service Commissioner?
Steve Oppenheimer: Like I told my kids, I’m doing it for them. I’ve been involved for the last eight years locally and nationally in energy policy and energy security issues, and I’m genuinely concerned about the track Georgia is currently on.
In the last five years rates are up 25 percent! And there’s another rate increase coming next year. And all of these increases are occurring during a flat economy.
Additionally, there’s a real problem with unemployment in Georgia, and our energy policy is working against creating more energy jobs here, in the areas of renewable energy, solar energy efficiency and smart grids. I want to make a big difference and that’s why I’ve had so many leadership roles over the years.
A lot of people are now saying the Public Service Commission has become essentially a subsidiary of Georgia Power.
Steve Oppenheimer: I wouldn’t disagree. But I would say that’s one of the things where ethical questions and conflicts of interest really need to be cleaned out. It happens one person at a time.
There are many things on the Public Service Commission that are voted 3/2, against the people. If one person on the commission wanted to look at things differently, that could make a real difference for the people.
The PSC has so much real–world power but I get the sense that very few Georgians know it even exists, much less what it does.
Steve Oppenheimer: You’re correct, and that’s what our polling shows. Before you had commissioners who did serve the public’s interest like Bobby Baker and Angela Speir, the public was more plugged in because they were made more aware of the impact of the commission’s decisions.
In 2008 the governor’s budget cuts removed the professional consumer advocate that served on the council to protect the consumer’s interest and speak on behalf of residential and small business owners. One of the first things I want to do is see that position restored. Since that position was taken away there’s been more than $4 billion in rate increases on the backs of homeowners and small businesses.
I was also a small businessman as a dentist and a homeowner, so I know what’s happening to my utility bills. I saw then that some of the decisions the PSC was making were unbelievable. I though I’d walked through the looking glass. It made no sense for the well–being of people in the state of Georgia.
What do you think of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision allowing unlimited corporate donations?
Steve Oppenheimer: Citizens United set democracy back a long long way. But it didn’t really change anything at the Public Service Commission, because utilities don’t give directly to the PSC at this point. What they do at the PSC to skirt that is attorneys or lobbyists get the checks.
The current PSC has approved Georgia Power’s two proposed new reactors at Plant Vogtle up the Savannah River, committing the public to pay for the reactors before they were built. If elected is there really anything you could do to make that situation more equitable for the ratepayers?
Steve Oppenheimer: At this point in time, a lot of this is toothpaste out of the tube already. The state legislature already has us prepaying interest for a plant that we don’t know how much it’s going to cost and when it’s going to be done. That’s totally unprecedented for a nuclear plant. The last time they built one they exceeded their budget by 1200 percent!
What do you think of nuclear power in general?
Steve Oppenheimer: Nuclear is part of our mix now, and it will be a bigger part of the mix when these two plants are added. But it won’t meet all of our energy needs going forward. We need to continue to expand alternatives, continue to diversify our sources of energy including renewable energy like solar, and eventually wind. It’s safe, it’s clean, and it doesn’t require water — which for a state that’s in and out of drought should be a real consideration in energy planning.
I’d also emphasize energy efficiency. In states like Arizona and North Carolina they’ve changed planning to include more focus on efficiency and renewables, and their rate increases are less than our annual rate increases. North Carolina’s cost per kilowatt is less than Georgia’s right now.
Let’s rank the realistic renewable options. What’s the low–hanging fruit right now?
Steve Oppenheimer: Energy efficiency. Then would come solar. That’s economically viable now. Also smart grid technology, which would include things like time–of–use plans, such as if you use more energy at a low demand time you get a price break.
This is a field that is changing rapidly, but not so much in Georgia. The only thing changing in Georgia is our prices are increasing. A 25 percent increase in five years is very problematic!
We need to look at the energy sector as an opportunity for America to innovate and meet this need. It’s time we get someone in there willing to do the homework.