Public Citizen claims to be a public interest consumer organization. Public Citizen's energy program has engaged over the years in a series of protests and interventions that spend more time whining about its lack of public funding that hinders its participation than actually saving real dollars for energy consumers. Public Citizen's most recent whine was highlighted in an article in RTO Insider this week. Public Interest Groups Cry Foul over Technical Conference, RTO Transparency links to a letter sent to RTO/ISOs and FERC complaining about being denied an opportunity to speak at a Technical Conference. Public Citizen also launches into its tired arguments that it should be paid to participate in energy regulatory proceedings and should receive voting rights at RTO/ISOs.
State Consumer Advocates already participate in RTO/ISO processes, and also represent consumer interests before FERC. State advocates are government employees with the sole mission of protecting consumer interests. They don't accept outside funding, and in fact currently operate on shoestring state budgets. These hardworking, underfunded advocates truly have the best interests of consumers in mind. How do I know this? Because I shared a counsel table with them during a 15-day FERC proceeding. I saw and heard a lot. Consumers saved nearly $20M in that case.
Public Citizen, on the other hand, is a private organization funded with grant money. Public Citizen's interests are the interests of their funders. When I looked at who funds Public Citizen, I found a list of individuals and foundations who donated buckets of money to the organization. While Public Citizen claims to represent thousands of consumer members (who remain nameless) and "low-income" citizen interests, regular folks aren't the ones donating obscene sums of money to Public Citizen. Under the category of "Foundations" there's plenty of private interest money to be had, such as the Energy Foundation. The Energy Foundation seems to have an interest in environmentalism. And, wouldn't you know it, Public Citizen's "Climate and Energy" program seems dedicated to clean energy (not necessarily saving consumers money on their energy bills). The Energy Foundation seems to be a conduit for billionaire environmentalists to hide while funneling money to private organizations eager to do their bidding. The Energy Foundation seems to have its fingerprints on a lot of "clean energy" initiatives, such as America's Power Plan (APP). APP was concocted several years ago to blow some smoke over the issue of using eminent domain to site energy facilities on private property. The Energy Foundation's assembled "experts" (including Farmer Jimmy Glotfelty of Clean Line Energy Partners) tried really hard to purport to know what landowners wanted in exchange for hosting energy infrastructure on private property. Except no landowners participated in their project. As a result, APP got things horribly wrong, such as this gem:
I want to site a new transmission line, but I am struggling to find the best way to work with private landowners who will be affected. Any suggestions?
Look to successful examples from around the country—like Montana Dakota Utilities and Clean Line Energy Partners. And consider new options to bring landowners to the table in a positive way—like Special Purpose Development Corporations or annual payments.
The first principle is to engage landowners early and often. Many utilities have found that holding landowner meetings earlier and more often than required can dramatically improve project efficiency. Innovative ideas include compensating private landowners via Special Purpose Development Corporations (which offer equity in the project’s success) or annual payments (which give landowners a stake in the life of the project). For example, Clean Line Energy Partners is now offering annual payments to landowners who will host a new DC transmission line intended to deliver 3.5 GW of power from Iowa to Chicago.
Of course, eminent domain often becomes an option once a transmission developer demonstrates that a new project is needed and the siting authority confirms that the project will serve the public interest. But cross-state transmission lines and third-party (non-utility) developers cannot always count on eminent domain. Regardless of whether eminent domain is an option, it should always be considered a last resort as there are many options to bring private land-owners to the table in a more positive way that can minimize friction in siting new lines. For example, Montana Dakota Utilities has not had to use eminent domain since 1983, mainly because the utilities consider themselves a part of the community, and have formed positive, trusting relationships with landowners.
For a more detailed treatment of these issues and further options for compensating private landowners, see pages 18-21 of Siting: Finding a Home for Renewable Energy and Transmission.
Well, now, how did I get so off track? "Clean energy" is like peeling an onion... there are so many layers when you drill down into where they get their funding. The Koch brothers would be proud.
So, let's get back on track here. Dueling consumer advocates. The state Consumer Advocates we already have are doing a good job. "Public Interest Organization" consumer advocates are an unnecessary addition to the fray, and may not have the interests of actual consumers in mind. This was demonstrated quite clearly in a recent FERC proceeding that pitted Public Citizen against the West Virginia Consumer Advocate. The subject was a PJM Interconnection rate case. Public Citizen intervened and whined about PJM's costs and said that consumer advocates aren't allowed to participate at PJM. West Virginia Consumer Advocate Jackie Roberts intervened and filed a comment disagreeing with Public Citizen's contentions about Consumer Advocate participation in PJM's budget. In fact, consumer advocates do participate in PJM's budget process, as well as being voting stakeholders in all PJM's processes. Not to be outdone, Public Citizen filed an answer, claiming that state consumer advocates don't represent Public Citizen members, and therefore there was also room at the consumer advocate table for PIOs like Public Citizen. I don't think anyone is stopping Public Citizen from participating in any regulatory or RTO process, just like any other PIO, such as Sierra Club, or NRDC. What Public Citizen likes to whine about is the fact that there is no public funding for its participation.
Talk about trying to board the gravy train... since when are any PIOs publicly funded by ratepayers through the federal regulatory process? And if they were, how many PIOs would belly up to the bar? The bottom line is that PIOs do their own thing according to the wishes of the people and foundations that fund them. That is not "public" interest. That's a private interest masquerading as a public servant. Nobody is minding the store to ensure that PIOs truly serve public interests. Therefore, they don't deserve public funding, or special concessions to allow them to have the same rights and privileges as state consumer advocates.
Federal regulators should think twice about opening Pandora's box with a pile of public funding offered to anyone who wants to call themselves a "public interest organization." The queue to score some public funding to advance private interests would probably wrap around the National Mall several times.
Maybe Public Citizen should concentrate on actually delivering some documented savings to electric consumers before whining that it needs public funding to protect consumer interests. The proof is in the pudding.