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In Louisiana, an electoral upset could mean a breakthrough for renewables

In every state across the country, there’s a small government body that oversees the private utilities responsible for providing basic services like electricity, water, and telecommunications. These public servants are rarely paid much attention — most people likely have no idea who they are or what they do. But they got a rare moment in the spotlight in Louisiana last weekend when Davante Lewis, a Democrat and first-time political candidate, won a seat on the state’s Public Service Commission in a highly anticipated runoff election.

The race was animated by debates over campaign finance and corruption, which climate advocates claim has obstructed Louisiana’s transition to clean energy. Lewis’ supporters hope his win will help the state, which currently ranks 50th in the country for renewable energy production, chart a new path. But the issues at play in the election are not unique to Louisiana. 

“This race and the amount of money that’s pouring into it is contributing to the conversation of, what is the job and role of a public service commissioner?” said Shelby Green, a research fellow at the Energy and Policy Institute, a nonprofit utility watchdog group. “And is it ethical for a commissioner, whose job is to regulate companies, to receive campaign contributions from those companies?”

Lewis ran to unseat Democratic incumbent Lambert Boissiere III, who had served for three six-year terms representing the commission’s only majority-Black district, an area that stretches across 10 parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The race went to a runoff after Boissiere failed to receive the 50 percent share of votes that he needed to win the November primary outright. On Saturday, Lewis beat Boissiere with 59 percent of the vote. With his win, Lewis made history as the first openly LGBTQ politician elected to a state-level office and the first openly LGBTQ Black person elected to any office in state history. The other commission seat up for election this year went to the Republican incumbent; the three remaining seats on the Louisiana Public Service Commission weren’t up for election this year.

Louisiana is one of only 11 states where utility regulators are elected — in the rest of the country they are appointed by the governor or legislature. These figures are tasked with ensuring that electricity and other services provided by utilities are reliable and that their rates are “just and reasonable” — a vague phrase embedded in most state regulatory acts. They do this by approving energy companies’ spending and growth plans, making them key players in determining the speed by which utilities adopt clean energy.

Lewis was backed by a super PAC largely funded by the advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental nonprofit. He ran on a platform of strengthening the electric grid against storms, transitioning the state to solar and wind power, and fighting the hefty fees energy companies tack onto electric bills. It was a message that many across south Louisiana were eager to hear. 

After Hurricane Ida tore through the region last year, causing widespread flooding and property damage, service providers took weeks to restore power in some areas, and more than 10 heat-related deaths were reported. Months later, residents saw their electric bills spike, as utility giant Entergy applied additional fees that it argued were necessary to repair transmission lines damaged in the storm — and which the Louisiana Public Service Commission approved. 

“That’s the same area that was heavily impacted by Hurricane Katrina and still feeling the remnants of that hurricane even today,” said Green. The district has not only been impacted by climate change, she added, “but also from an economic standpoint, they are the ones who lost their wealth the most during that time and are still recovering.”

Rate increases are not the only issue that brought people to the polls. Boissiere has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Entergy and other utilities, a fact that Lewis used to try to discredit him during his campaign. 

“Tonight, Louisiana has a public service commissioner who’s unafraid to hold Entergy accountable,” Lewis told a crowd of supporters at a pub in Baton Rouge on election night. “I owe this victory to the people of Louisiana and their commitment to a brighter, cleaner, and 100 percent renewable future.”

Power lines down in Louisiana after storm
Power line poles are seen downed by Hurricane Ida in Houma, Louisiana on August 30, 2021. Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Environmentalists say Boissiere’s decisions have benefited coal-reliant energy companies at the expense of ratepayers. In 2019, he voted to change a long-standing policy by which homeowners with rooftop solar panels were credited the same amount of electricity that they supplied to the grid. They now only get back a third of the power that their systems generate. 

“It pushes the expansion and development of solar for rooftop residential and commercial to those who can afford it, which is largely people who have a pile of money,” said Logan Burke, the executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a utility-focused Louisiana advocacy group. “It is a major inequity in renewable policy in Louisiana.”

During Boissiere’s tenure, the Louisiana Public Service Commission has supported Entergy’s approach of building small-scale transmission projects and blocking larger regional transmission planning efforts, which advocates say would have improved reliability and helped transport renewable energy. 

Louisiana is one of only a handful of states that has no renewable portfolio standard, a policy that requires utilities to transition to cleaner sources of energy over time. In most states these policies have been enacted by the legislature, but the Louisiana Public Service Commission is endowed with the power to enact one without direction from the state. In 2009 the commission shelved a proposal to develop such a standard in Louisiana, deeming it too costly for utility customers. It was never raised again, despite the plunging cost of renewables: The cost of utility-scale solar power fell by 88 percent between 2010 and 2021, and the cost of onshore wind power fell by 68 percent during that period, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, a trade group. Lewis has said that creating a renewable portfolio standard  for Louisiana will be one of his top priorities after entering office.

Louisiana is far from the only state where utilities have spent big to sway public service commission elections. For example, a 2019 probe found that the largest electric utility in Arizona spent millions of dollars in past elections to install commissioners who were friendly to the company. Lewis aims to end the practice altogether in Louisiana, which could be accomplished either through legislation or a pledge by commissioners. 

Despite the overwhelming support that Lewis received from environmental groups and the constituents of his district, the young politician has his work cut out for him. His success hinges on his ability to convince the other members of the commission to radically transform the way that it regulates utilities in the state. The five-member body has historically leaned against the development of renewables, but with Boissiere out and Republican commissioner Craig Greene signaling an interest in increasing competition in the state’s energy market, the odds may be in Lewis’ favor. That’s why clean energy advocates are hopeful that his win will usher a new era of clean energy in Louisiana. 

“I do think that there is an appetite from some sitting commissioners to make this transition,” Burke said. Over the past year, she has heard commissioners say that they received hundreds of phone calls from frustrated residents whose energy bills have skyrocketed due to the rising cost of natural gas. 

In a Louisiana Public Service Commission meeting last May, Democratic commissioner Foster Campbell blasted his colleagues for dragging their feet on renewable energy. “If we’d have all listened to all this global warming bologna and took it to heart a long time ago, if the companies would have worked together and the people would have worked together rather than splitting it down the middle and making it a political issue, we’d have been a long ways down the road and saved a lot of money,” he said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline In Louisiana, an electoral upset could mean a breakthrough for renewables on Dec 13, 2022.

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