Regulating the energy industry during COVID-19, Part III

This third article of the series focuses on states in the South and Midwest

TransmissionHub reached out to the country’s state regulators — as well as to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — about how they are adapting during the new coronavirus disease called COVID-19. TransmissionHub asked four questions, which are listed below, followed by each state regulator’s response. The first article of TransmissionHub’s four-part series focused on FERC and NARUC. The second article of the series focused on states in the West. This third article of the series focuses on states in the South and Midwest. The fourth article in the series — focusing on states in the East/Mid-Atlantic — will be published on March 31.

For information on COVID-19, including the number of cases in the United States, please visit such sites as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

TransmissionHub: What measures has the commission put in place to assist its members and staff in light of COVID-19?

Alabama: A representative of the Alabama Public Service Commission on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the commission on March 16, as encouraged by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, developed a plan for telecommuting through April 6. The temporary plan provided, among other things, that at least two division directors report to work and remain on premise from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday, per the calendar provided by the executive director. The plan also provided that all other commission employees are to be responsible for continuing to perform all normal assignments that can be accomplished from home, the representative added.

Arkansas: Donna Gray, executive director of the Arkansas Public Service Commission (PSC), on March 27 told TransmissionHub that Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has issued several Executive Orders declaring an emergency, as well as providing guidance and directing actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The commission, its advisory staff, and its general staff are authorized to work remotely to the maximum extent possible, Gray said. The PSC building remains open during normal business hours, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, to ensure essential state services remain available. Gray added that a significant number of the commission’s employees are working remotely, noting that for “those employees who are working in the building, we are observing social distancing.” Filings with the commission secretary have been largely accomplished via the commission’s established Electronic Filing Systems for some years now and that process continues. Gray added, in part, “As to customers, Arkansas utilities have voluntarily suspended disconnections during this time and are working to address customer needs.”

Illinois: Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) spokesperson Victoria Crawford on March 27 told TransmissionHub that commissioners and ICC staff are working remotely from home to ensure essential governmental functions continue and, to the extent possible, that business as usual continues during this period. Crawford said: “There is a very small rotation of employees in the office to ensure filings are processed and to perform other functions that can’t be performed remotely. The ICC continues to adhere to the CDC guidelines.” Crawford said, in part, that field staff are eliminating non-essential field visits and where field visits are required, adhering to CDC guidelines.

Indiana: The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission has posted notifications and updates on its website, noting, for instance, that while its office is closed to the public, staff is continuing to conduct work remotely and can be reached via email and voicemail. In a March 25 update, the commission said that hearings and conferences, starting with hearings on March 30, will be held via WebEx conference call. Commission spokesperson Stephanie Hodgin on March 26 told TransmissionHub: “We may make periodic adjustments to how we’re operating during this time, but we will continue to communicate any updates or changes.”

Iowa: Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) spokesperson Don Tormey on March 27 told TransmissionHub that the board remains open to serve customers, the public, and stakeholders. The majority of staff is teleworking, and all staff is available by phone or email. IUB staff inspectors who work in the field are following procedures to conduct business virtually while following CDC and Iowa Department of Public Health guidelines, Tormey said.

Kentucky: Andrew Melnykovych, director of communications/public information officer of the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC), on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the commission has closed its offices to visitors and is allowing the majority of its staff to telecommute. All filings are being handled electronically, with paper filing requirements suspended until further notice. Training events have been rescheduled, and in-person meetings are suspended, as are inspections of utilities by PSC staff, Melnykovych added.

Michigan: In responses provided to TransmissionHub on March 26, Michigan Public Service Commission Chairman Sally Talberg noted that the commission “was one of the first state agencies in Michigan to institute teleworking for its staff, and worked with individual staff to secure necessary equipment and resources to support teleworking. Agency leadership has provided members and staff regular updates on both internal operations and industry developments throughout the emergency.” Resources have also been shared on such matters as mental and physical health, Talberg said.

Minnesota: Will Seuffert, executive secretary of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, on March 27 told TransmissionHub that the commission’s staff is almost entirely telecommuting. The commission will use a web-based platform to host commission agenda meetings online, Seuffert said.

Mississippi: [Editor’s note: TransmissionHub received responses via email from two commissioners of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, Commissioners Brent Bailey (Central District) and Dane Maxwell (Southern District) on March 26 and March 27, respectively. TransmissionHub spoke with Commission Chair — and NARUC President — Brandon Presley (Northern District) by telephone on March 27.]
Bailey noted that in early March, the commission’s “Central District Office developed a telework plan, identifying resources to help make our work effective at home, practicing social distancing, as we chose to act by the guidelines issued by the CDC and the Mississippi State Department of Health. That plan has been fully enacted and staff remains in constant contact while working on commission matters and responding to consumer issues.”
Maxwell noted that after Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared in early March a State of Emergency, “we implemented our telework plan almost immediately. The Southern District staff is continuing to answer calls, questions and complaints all in the safety of their own homes. Our staff is continuously communicating with one another through phone, email and Zoom meetings and making sure all business is taken care of like usual.”
Presley said, in part: “We are keeping as minimum a number of staff members in our Jackson office — our state office — as possible, sometimes just down to one person there a day because we have the ability for most of our people to telecommute. We were one of the first there to go to exclusive e-filing.”

Nebraska: Deb Collins, media and communications manager of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the commission is holding meetings and hearings virtually, and that staff is being allowed to work remotely.
Tim Texel, executive director and general counsel of the Nebraska Power Review Board (NPRB), on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the NPRB board members are not full-time and only come to the NPRB offices for meetings or special events. The board’s staff consists of three people, Texel said, adding that the paralegal is currently in a work-from-home status, while the executive director/general counsel and business manager are working from the office daily.

North Dakota: Stacy Eberl, consumer affairs/public outreach specialist of the North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC) on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the majority of PSC staff is currently working from home. “A handful of key essential personnel are still at the office in order to keep IT systems, physical mail, docketing,” and other matters running, Eberl said. Among other things, Eberl noted that inspectors in the field have been given hand sanitizer and other sanitizing wipes, for instance, to use after visiting businesses, and are being advised to avoid high traffic locations for now.

Ohio: Matt Schilling, director of the Office of Public Affairs of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) told TransmissionHub that in response to Ohio’s declared state of emergency and to practice social distancing, the majority of commission staff is teleworking.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma Corporation Commission spokesperson Sarah Terry-Cobo on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the commission’s measures include implementing teleworking for all employees who are able to do so, as well as providing laptops and more VPN connections for those who normally work on desktop computers at the office. The commission in early March put hand sanitizing stations on each floor near elevators, Terry-Cobo said, adding that the commission is also following state and federal guidelines as it relates to leave time or time off for employees.

South Dakota: In responses provided to TransmissionHub on March 26, South Dakota Public Utilities Commission Chairman Gary Hanson said that the commission’s office in the Capitol building in Pierre, S.D., is closed through May 1. Commissioners and staff are working remotely from their homes, Hanson said, adding that the PUC’s regular operations are continuing during this time. PUC consumer affairs staff is in regular contact with investor-owned energy utilities and telecommunications providers about each company specific response to the coronavirus, and communicates accordingly with affected consumers, Hanson added. Among other things, Hanson noted that the PUC’s phone, 1-800-332-1782 and 605-773-3201, is being answered from 8 a.m. to noon, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., during the week.

Tennessee: Tim Schwarz, director of Communications and External Affairs of the Tennessee Public Utility Commission, on March 26 told TransmissionHub, in part, that the commission has adopted Tennessee’s Alternative Workplace Solutions (AWS) program for all of its employees. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has directed all state employees currently working from home to continue doing so until April 24, Schwarz said, adding, “We have shifted to an electronic docket filing system and will conduct commission business via digital conferencing.”

Texas: Andrew Barlow, communications director of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the commission “moved quickly to a teleworking posture for all but a few employees. By leveraging technology platforms like Microsoft Teams, our Customer Protection Division call center is entirely virtual (with nearly two dozen call center staffers working from their homes) and almost all meetings occurring online.”

TransmissionHub: How is the commission helping to inform the public of energy matters during this time?

Alabama: The commission’s representative noted that the commission issued a public statement on March 17 concerning the suspension of customer disconnects of utility services for those affected by COVID-19; staff is also responding to emails and telephone calls, as appropriate.

Arkansas: Gray noted that the commission provides information on its website, and that information has been shared, as well as reported, by local newspapers and radio stations. Gray noted, in part, that utilities are in frequent contact with the PSC regarding actions taken and planned, as well as “efforts to share best practices in this ever-evolving and unique time.”

Illinois: Crawford said that the ICC is being aggressive in using traditional and social media platforms to get the word out about its operations and how to contact it, as well as the steps it is taking to protect the public. The commission has also set up a webpage to provide up-to-date information about how the ICC is handling the COVID-19 disease, Crawford said, adding, in part, that social media posts may be found on Twitter at @ILCommerceComm or on LinkedIn.

Iowa: Tormey noted that the IUB has issued orders regarding specific dockets and posted information on its website. The IUB has also issued news releases regarding docket-related decisions or planned hearings and workshops regarding COVID-19, Tormey said.

Kentucky: Melnykovych noted that the commission’s public communications are largely through electronic means, and that has not changed.

Michigan: Talberg noted that the commission is leading regular industry calls with energy providers — natural gas, electricity, steam, petroleum, and propane — to identify, troubleshoot, and escalate COVID-19-related issues, such as mutual assistance, for resolution. The commission also leads an interagency task force to coordinate broader critical infrastructure efforts during the crisis, Talberg said.

Minnesota: Seuffert said that the commission opened a generic docket on COVID-19 matters and asked utilities to file a response describing their activities pertaining to disconnections, customer payment plans, and cold weather protections during the pandemic. The commission also updates its website regularly and uses its social media accounts to share information, Seuffert said, adding that the commission is partnering with other state agencies to disseminate information as opportunities arise.

Mississippi: Bailey noted that the Central District has a strong social media presence and continues to communicate information to the public through its social media platforms via Twitter and Facebook. 
Similarly, Maxwell said that the Southern District is relying heavily on its online presence and is communicating with consumers through its social media pages, Facebook and Twitter, to keep the public updated.
Bailey and Maxwell noted that news releases and public notices are posted to the commission’s website, and that the commission relies on local media outlets to help circulate critical information to the public.
Similarly, Presley noted that he updates consumers via Facebook and that the commission has “received very good assistance through our trade groups, for instance, for our rural water associations, our electric cooperatives, and others” to help release information on official commission actions. Noting that in-person press conferences will not be held during this time, he said that the commission is relying almost exclusively on telecommuting, email, and social media.

Nebraska: Collins noted that the commission is utilizing all means typically used, including social media.
Texel said that the board believes it is preferable for individual electric utilities to provide their customers with information and announcements regarding utility functions and policies. He noted, in part, that the state “is unique in the United States in that all retail electric utilities are consumer owned (also called ‘public power’) entities, with governing bodies elected by their customers (either public power district boards, city councils village boards, or cooperative boards).”

North Dakota: Similarly, Eberl noted that the commission uses news releases and social media — Twitter — to share information. Eberl noted, in part, that the commission is working on adding specific information to its website regarding changes to its public meetings policies and providing public input for cases.

Ohio: Schilling said: “We’re actively doing our part to help Ohioans during this time and are communicating information about COVID-19 and energy matters through commission orders, social media, our newsletter and news releases. And as always, our Call Center is open and we encourage Ohioans to use the Contact Us form on our website,”

Oklahoma: Terry-Cobo said that the commission encourages everyone to sign up for the News Alerts through GovDelivery email service. The commissioners will continue to have regular commission meetings, even if some commissioners are joining the meeting remotely, Terry-Cobo said, adding that the public can access commission meetings via a livestream or regular phone conference call. Terry-Cobo noted that utilities are collaborating with the commission in agreement to not disconnect customers during the pandemic.

South Dakota: Hanson noted that commission staff is responding to consumer inquiries as needed.

Tennessee: Schwarz said that public notices will be made electronically, posted on the commission’s website, and distributed to the media; public participation is accessible through the commission’s digital conferencing.

Texas: Barlow said that the commission is leveraging media relations and social media channels to keep the public informed, as well as relying on market participants to keep their customers informed as well.

TransmissionHub: In light of COVID-19, has there been a change in the amount of filings that are submitted to the commission for transmission/generation/distribution projects?

Alabama: The commission’s representative noted that as it relates to filings that would require commission action, the regulated utility companies have been encouraged to only submit those that are essential to their operations at this time; all other informational filings will continue to be submitted to the staff through overnight mail or in electronic format.

Arkansas: Gray said that there has not been a change at this time.

Illinois: Crawford said that those filings are submitted on an intermittent basis, adding, “We do not, at this time, have information regarding whether such filings have been impacted by COVID-19.”

Iowa: Similarly, Tormey said, “It is too early to tell if there has been a change in the amount of filings the IUB has received.”

Kentucky: Melnykovych said that there has been no obvious change, adding that it is too “soon to gauge long-term effects. The PSC continues to receive and process filings electronically in a wide variety of matters. Orders are being issued as before.”

Michigan: Similarly, Talberg said that there has not been a change at this time, adding that the electronic system for filings is intact, and that the commission remains operational.

Minnesota: Seuffert said that the commission is still processing the open dockets related to transmission/generation/distribution. “We have not seen a change in the amount of applications for new projects based on the COVID-19 virus,” he said.

Mississippi: Bailey noted, for instance, that the commission “recently suspended the rules regarding the submission of original/paper copies of filings – whether in-person or via delivery service.”
Maxwell said, in part, that all filings must be made electronically through the commission’s website until further notice.
Presley said, in part, that there has “been a dramatic change” in the amount of filings made, with filings having “slowed to a trickle.” He noted that public utilities in Mississippi are in response mode and every utility that he has “talked to is squarely focused on accessibility, reliability, protection of their workforce, and protection of public health.”

Nebraska: Collins noted that the commission has not seen a change at this time. Texel said that while the board’s workload tends to be cyclical, “I would say the filings and utility contacts have decreased since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic announcement.”

North Dakota: Noting that it is too early to say with certainty whether the number of filings to site transmission and generation projects is changing, Eberl said that the commission is processing, or has recently completed processing, several transmission and generation projects. The number of distribution projects is more unknown since those are not submitted to the commission, Eberl said.

Ohio: Schilling said that to date, the commission has not seen a significant change in the number of filings. The commission has been proactively talking to several utilities to understand what projects they anticipate filings, so that the commission can be prepared to review, Schilling said.

Oklahoma: Similarly, Terry-Cobo said, in part, that it is hard to tell with certainty if the pandemic has affected the number of filings related to transmission, generation, or distribution projects.

South Dakota: Hanson noted that filings continue to be received and posted online. There have been no new dockets filed for transmission/generation/distribution projects recently, Hanson said, adding that filings in open dockets, such as for wind energy siting projects, are being processed as usual.

Texas: Barlow noted that as part of the transition to teleworking, the commission accelerated a move toward online filing, and that the number of filings has continued on, uninterrupted.

TransmissionHub: Has the commission postponed public meetings for transmission/generation/distribution projects during this time or decided to hold any such meeting online?

Alabama: The commission’s representative said that the commission’s normal monthly meeting that was scheduled for April 7 has been rescheduled for April 14.

Arkansas: Gray said that current procedural schedules have not required postponements for those type of proceedings.

Illinois: Crawford noted that the commission on March 18 held a special open meeting followed by an emergency open meeting with the commissioners and staff calling in by phone; audio of the meeting was broadcast live through the ICC website. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker recently issued an Executive Order allowing governmental bodies to meet remotely during this crisis, Crawford said, adding that the commission will continue to meet in regular open session in that manner until the public health emergency has ended. Interested parties can listen to live audio of those sessions, Crawford said. The commission’s administrative law judges are, in some cases, and where the judge has the discretion to do so, extending deadlines to accommodate the needs of the parties to the case and ICC staff, Crawford said.

Iowa: Tormey said that the IUB has worked with utilities and other entities to reschedule public informational meetings for proposed electric transmission line projects.

Kentucky: Melnykovych said that the only evidentiary hearing scheduled for April related to generation has been cancelled because the PSC determined that the case can be decided on the existing record, with parties allowed to file briefs. No other hearings on transmission/generation/distribution projects are pending at this time. The PSC has the ability to hold hearings by public teleconference if necessary, Melnykovych added.

Michigan: Noting that the commission cancelled its March 18 meeting and has plans to hold its regular April meeting via teleconference, Talberg said that the commission is ensuring continuity of its operations related to case work, including review of infrastructure projects.

Minnesota: Seuffert said that the commission suspended public meetings for two weeks starting March 16, adding that in-person meetings will not resume until executive orders are rescinded and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH)/CDC guidelines on social distancing are revised. The commission will hold web-based agenda meetings starting April 9.

Mississippi: Bailey said that there have been some temporary postponements to re-notice meetings/hearings because the commission is moving those from in-person to telephonically.
Maxwell noted that the commission’s public hearings are always streamed live on YouTube, adding, in part, “Most of the people who are required to attend the meetings are now doing so via telephone.”
Presley said that the commission is “pretty caught up as to the things that we need to be hearing on [regarding] generation and transmission.” He noted that the commission was able to hold a hearing on a solar facility prior to both federal and state declarations of emergency.

Nebraska: Collins said that if needed, meetings will be rescheduled or held remotely.
Texel said that the board cancelled its monthly public meeting scheduled for April 13, and that the board does not have pending any applications for transmission or generation projects.

North Dakota: Eberl said that the commission has not postponed any public meetings, but is making changes to the way those meetings are held. “People wanting to submit public input are being encouraged to do so in writing,” Eberl said. “To accommodate this, the commission is allowing the official record to remain open after a public hearing for [five] days to allow people to listen to an audio recording of the hearing and submit any comments they may have.” Among other things, Eberl said that all hearings held at the commission’s hearing room in the Capitol have the ability to be web-streamed for viewing.

Ohio: Schilling noted that the commission and Ohio Power Siting Board have postponed all local public hearings and public meetings related to generation/transmission/distribution projects. “However, the commission is maintaining its regular biweekly meeting schedule, with emergency meetings, as necessary,” Schilling said. “While these meetings are open to the public, the PUCO has strongly encouraged stakeholders to watch the livestream rather than attend in person.”

South Dakota: Hanson said that regularly scheduled commission meetings for March 31, April 14 and April 29 will be held telephonically. Members of the public can listen to a live webcast of each meeting through the PUC’s homepage. Hanson added that there are no other public meetings for transmission/generation/distribution projects scheduled through May 1.

Tennessee: Schwarz noted, in part, that the commission does not regulate the generation or transmission of electric power in Tennessee. The commission canceled its April conference and deferred its docketed items to its May conference, Schwarz said, adding that the commission was scheduled to hold a special conference on March 27 to consider a petition filed by the Consumer Advocate Unit within the state Attorney General’s Office that urged the commission to prohibit service disconnections for nonpayment during this state of emergency.

Texas: Barlow said that the commission has maintained its open meeting schedule and shifted to an almost entirely online approach, “with the exception of our three commissioners and critical support staff who maintained appropriate social distancing during” the March 26 open meeting.

Article amended at 6:28 p.m., EST, on Friday, April 3, 2020, to include comments received on March 31, 2020, from Matt Schilling, director of the Office of Public Affairs of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.