Regulating the energy industry during COVID-19, Part IV

This final article of the series focuses on states in the East/Mid-Atlantic

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. The third article of the series focused on states in the South and Midwest. This final article in the series focuses on states in the East/Mid-Atlantic.

For information on COVID-19, including the number of cases in the United States, please visit such sites as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the WHO’s “COVID-19 situation dashboard” — as it was posted at 7:48 p.m., EST, on March 31 — there were 140,640 confirmed cases in the United States, and 2,398 deaths.

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

Connecticut: Taren O’Connor, director of Legislation, Regulations, and Communications of the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), on March 26 told TransmissionHub that PURA has taken the appropriate steps to allow its employees to telework, and that the entire agency is now working remotely.

Delaware: Raj Barua, Ph.D., executive director of the Delaware Public Service Commission, on March 26 told TransmissionHub that Delaware Gov. John Carney has issued an Executive Order (EO), which allows state employees to telecommute to the extent possible, as long as services to constituents are not affected; most of the commission’s employees are teleworking.

District of Columbia: Kellie Didigu, communications officer of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia, on March 27 told TransmissionHub that under Mayor Muriel Bowser’s directive of a public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission closed its offices on March 16, and instituted its Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), which provides direction to staff regarding teleworking procedures from their residences. Didigu also said, among other things, that Commission Chairman Willie Phillips has requested that all electric suppliers and natural gas suppliers, as well as their third-party marketing companies, immediately discontinue all door-to-door solicitation and marketing efforts during the COVID-19 public health emergency and for 15 days thereafter.

Florida: Cindy Muir, director of the Florida Public Service Commission’s Office of Consumer Assistance & Outreach, on March 27 told TransmissionHub that commission staff is telecommuting as much as possible, with meetings being held via teleconference.

Georgia: Georgia Public Service Commission spokesperson Tom Krause on March 26 told TransmissionHub that while the commission is open for business, almost all of its staffers and all of the commissioners are teleworking. The executive secretary’s office remains open to receive filings, but filers are encouraged to e-file or to use FedEx or UPS; the commission has set up a new e-filing system. Pipeline safety employees remain in the field, Krause added.

Maryland: Tori Leonard, communications director of the Maryland Public Service Commission, on March 27 told TransmissionHub that after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, the commission closed its physical offices in Baltimore on March 17, and staff is working remotely to continue mission-critical functions. Leonard noted that the commission’s field operations staff is continuing their functions, using appropriate safety protocols.

New York: John Chirlin, director of media communications, Office of Public Affairs of the New York State Department of Public Service, on March 27 told TransmissionHub that the department — the staff arm of the state Public Service Commission — has taken multiple steps to minimize staff being in the office. In following New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State on Pause Order, the department’s work continues without interruption due to staff’s ability “to access email remotely and connect to network drives and department applications and its online document and data management system,” Chirlin said. Among other things, Chirlin noted that internal and public meetings, including the commission’s March session, have successfully been conducted remotely.

North Carolina: Sam Watson, general counsel of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the commission is following the guidance from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Office of State Human Resources, and is assisting employees to telework during the declared State of Emergency.

Pennsylvania: Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, press secretary of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, on March 26 told TransmissionHub that with the closure of Pennsylvania state office buildings last week, the commission shifted to telework and all of its bureaus continue to operate, to the best of their ability. The commission launched a special COVID-19 webpage to bring together all key announcements and information related to the current situation, Hagen-Frederiksen said, adding that the commission has issued three emergency orders, including suspension of utility terminations for payment-related issues, as well as allowing for the modification of deadlines for cases, regulatory filings and commission actions.

Vermont: Ann Bishop, operations director of the Vermont Public Utility Commission, on March 27 told TransmissionHub that consistent with Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s recent Stay Home/Stay Safe directive, all commission staff are working remotely from home.  The commission has provided staff with equipment to facilitate that, Bishop said, adding that the transition to working from home was made easier by the commission’s adoption three years ago of an online filing and case management system, known as ePUC, which is accessible to all commission employees and the public.

Virginia: Ken Schrad, director of the Division of Information Resources of the Virginia State Corporation Commission, on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the commission is making every effort possible to maintain its core functions during the COVID-19 national emergency. The commission is following the CDC guidelines for ensuring the health of its employees and the general public, Schrad said, adding that the majority of commission employees are teleworking with the goal of continuing to provide services to the regulated community and the general public.

West Virginia: Susan Small, communications director of the Public Service Commission of West Virginia, on March 26 told TransmissionHub that the commission has been proactive in attempts to keep its members and staff safe. For instance, the commission is encouraging employees to work from home, whenever possible using laptops and call forwarding. “We have an absolute bare-bones minimum staff working from our buildings right now,” Small added. “We are also rotating staff and moving staff who must be in the building to be further apart from one another.” Among other things, the commission has also distributed the “PSC Pandemic Preparedness Guide” to all utilities operating in the state, and has extended filing deadlines for administrative law judge (ALJ) cases and others, as needed and allowed by statute.

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

Connecticut: O’Connor said that PURA is keeping the public informed through messages on its website, as well as through press releases and media advisories. PURA has initiated a proceeding – docket 20-03-15 – to establish a state of emergency utility shut-off moratorium. O’Connor added that PURA is taking into consideration potential impacts on program deadlines and requests for information, both in new matters and as PURA reviews previous orders. Among other things, O’Connor said that PURA has made several operational adjustments, including — through April 20 — temporarily suspending its paper copy requirement, allowing electronic submission of confidential material, and providing teleconference options to participate in upcoming hearings and meetings.

Delaware: Barua noted that the commission is updating its website and social media with relevant information about the governor’s EO and utility actions in response to COVID 19.

District of Columbia: Didigu said that the commission continues to regularly post public information statements and notices on its website regarding current news and changes in scheduled events; that is supplemented by press releases and social media posts. Didigu noted that the commission launched an online resource page on its website to keep the public informed of commission decisions and actions being taken in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Florida: Muir noted that the commission’s homepage includes a public message from its chairman and links all IOUs that adjusted their disconnection/late payment policies during this public health pandemic. “At our March 31 commission conference, which will be held via web access and public participation by phone, commissioners will consider an emergency request from Duke Energy Florida to revise its tariff to better accommodate customers: http://www.floridapsc.com/library/filings/2020/01584-2020/01584-2020.pdf,” Muir said.

Georgia: Krause noted that the commission continues to update its website, including by providing a link to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s list that shows which utilities are postponing any interruption of service for non-payment. Krause said that while the commission’s Consumer Affairs unit remains up and running, the call-center employees have their computers and phones at their homes, and are taking calls as usual.

Maryland: Leonard noted that the commission continues to send information via press release and post to its social media accounts. The commission’s legislative director provides updates to the Maryland General Assembly. Leonard added that the commission’s executive secretary, advisors, technical staff, Public Utility Law Judge Division, and workgroup leaders maintain email distribution and service lists and communicate information through those methods. Among other things, Leonard noted that Commission Chairman Jason Stanek participates in the governor’s regular Cabinet meeting calls, and that Gov. Hogan has issued several relevant Executive Orders, including a prohibition on utility service terminations during the state of emergency.

New York: Chirlin noted that the commission maintains a public database of all of the documents associated with each case, and that the public can sign-up to receive updates on specific cases. The commission also sends notices for all public hearings and provides project fact sheets for all public statement hearings, Chirlin said, adding that the commission issues press releases for public statement hearings and has an active Twitter account. Chirlin said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission has increased its public outreach via social media.

North Carolina: Watson said that the commission has posted several alerts on its website related to case scheduling and disconnections during the State of Emergency. The commission has ordered all regulated electric, natural gas, and water and wastewater public utilities to immediately cease customer disconnections due to non-payment of utility bills, except where necessary as a matter of safety or where requested by the customer, and waive the application of late fees incurred during the State of Emergency. Among other things, Watson added that the commission further suspended, pending further orders, any and all regulations and provisions of individual utility tariffs on file that prevent or condition reconnection of disconnected customers.

Pennsylvania: Hagen-Frederiksen said that public outreach continues, via the commission’s website, press releases and other announcements, as well as its social media channels and outreach to stakeholders. Among other things, Hagen-Frederiksen noted that the commission is working to continue offering helpful consumer advice – including cautions about potential scams.

Vermont: Bishop noted that unlike many states, Vermont has two state agencies involved with the regulation of public utilities — the commission and the state Department of Public Service, which serves as the public advocate in commission proceedings, as well as the state’s energy office. The commission, which is the quasi-judicial agency that regulates utilities, generally communicates through orders that it has issued. However, Bishop added, the commission issues press releases when it issues a decision that is of significant public interest, such as its recent temporary moratorium on utility disconnection of residential customers. The commission has expanded that temporary moratorium to include non-residential ratepayers and regulated water companies, Bishop said.

Virginia: Schrad said that all business with the commission is being handled through electronic filing systems, email, or by telephone, and that public walk-in traffic to the commission’s office building is temporarily suspended. Currently scheduled hearings are far enough in advance to consider necessary accommodations to adhere to the 10-person limit on public gatherings. Schrad added that commission staff will remain in communication with legal counsel representing participants in any commission proceeding to address scheduling or filing issues that may arise. Schrad noted that certain orders have already been entered by the commission, including “PUR-2020-00048 – Suspending Disconnection of Utility Service (3/16/2020).”

West Virginia: Small said, for instance, that the commission’s website allows the public to access all documents filed in any case, and that its staff continues to answer phones during regular business hours, responding to questions and assisting members of the public or utilities who need assistance.

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?

Delaware: Barua said that to the extent there is no immediate need for a filing, regulated companies have voluntarily refrained from filing at this time; any routine filing that has statutory deadlines are on track.

District of Columbia: Didigu noted that filings to the commission are made electronically, and that there has been no change in that practice.

Florida: Muir noted that filings and filing deadlines are being met, as normal.

Georgia: Krause noted: “Georgia Power Company is our sole investor-owned electric utility. Transmission/generation/distribution filings are typically handled in the Integrated Resource Plan every three years. Therefore, filings such as these are too rare for us to notice a difference in the past couple of weeks.” Krause said that as far as day-to-day filings, the commission has typically seen three to 10 daily filings from individuals walking in and hand-filing; those have been reduced to zero over the past two weeks. Krause said that since the commission set up the new e-filing system, most filings come through that, and that the total number of filings that the commission receives on a daily basis remains about the same. Krause said, “This is a slow time for us anyway with no rate cases pending.”

Maryland: Leonard said that regulated entities and the public continue to use the commission’s e-filing system, which is still in operation, and filings are continuing to come in; paper copies and notarization requirements have been eased. Designated email accounts have been established for direct communication with, for instance, the executive secretary’s office. “Filings continue to be processed, the only delays may involve correspondence that is sent by U.S. mail – mail is currently being retrieved only one day a week from our building – and any Public Information Act responses that require copying of files,” Leonard said.

New York: Chirlin said that the department has not seen a decline in total filings.

North Carolina: Whether there has been a change in the amount of filing submitted, Watson said, “Not that I know of.”

Pennsylvania: Hagen-Frederiksen said, in part, that the office closing has limited access to physical mail, with stakeholders directed to file documents electronically.

Vermont: Bishop said that the number of new such cases filed with the commission in the first half of March is comparable to the number of new such cases filed with the commission in the first half of March 2019. About 11% fewer new such cases were filed between March 15 and March 27, 2020, than were filed between March 15 and March 27, 2019, Bishop said. The commission requires certain larger generation projects to file “advance notices” 45 days before filing their actual petition for the projects with the commission.  Bishop added that the number of those advance notices filed so far in March 2020 is comparable to the number filed in the same portion of March 2019.

West Virginia: Small noted that the commission is in a period where it was not expecting any new large transmission/generation/distribution projects to be filed.

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

Connecticut: O’Connor said that PURA has not postponed any public meetings related to transmission, generation or distribution projects, and is instead opting to hold such meetings telephonically.

Delaware: Barua said that while the commission has not postponed any hearings or regular public meetings that are on its schedule, the governor’s EO allows such meetings to be held via electronic medium, as long as the public can listen or participate. Therefore, the commission’s hearings and public meetings are held via teleconference and backed up by transcripts and video recording, Barua said.

District of Columbia: Didigu noted that the commission postponed, to a date to be determined, an informational hearing regarding Potomac Electric Power Company’s (Pepco) and the District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) implementation of the First Biennial Plan in the DC Power Line Undergrounding (DC PLUG) project.

Georgia: Krause said that the commission does not plan to postpone any meetings for transmission/generation/distribution projects at this time, and that it recently finished its three-year Integrated Resource Plan for Georgia Power, as well as rate cases for Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light. All commission meetings will remain open to the public. However, Krause added, commissioners have encouraged all parties to participate through the commission website. Among other things, Krause said that the commission has purchased a Zoom account for its future committee meetings. The next meetings are scheduled for April 2, and all interested parties will be asked to send an RSVP if they want to be heard. Commissioners are taking individual meetings by phone, Krause added.

Maryland: Leonard said that all public comment hearings and evidentiary hearings scheduled through the end of March have been postponed; public comments on all open cases can be submitted through the commission’s online comments portal and if, necessary, mailed in. Leonard said that the commission’s weekly administrative meetings for March 18 and March 25 were cancelled and agenda items were moved to a later date. The commission has scheduled a virtual rulemaking on grid interconnection standards (RM68) for March 31, and the administrative meeting on April 1 will also be held virtually. Leonard added, among other things, that for those virtual meetings, participants will take part via Zoom, and that the public can watch live on the commission’s YouTube channel.

New York: Chirlin said that the department is holding required public meetings online or through WebEx, and that due to Gov. Cuomo’s recently issued Executive Order 202.5, the requirements to hold public statement hearings have been temporarily suspended. Public comments in any affected proceedings can be submitted online.  In addition, hearing officers will employ remote conference technology options that will allow required fact-finding evidentiary hearings to be held, Chirlin added, noting, “Our review of projects and issues before us remain on track and are proceeding accordingly.”

North Carolina: Watson said that the commission has postponed hearings in two rate cases, and did not have any hearings scheduled for transmission/generation/distribution projects during March or April.

Pennsylvania: Hagen-Frederiksen noted that the commission’s regular public meeting on March 26 was being held telephonically.

Vermont: Bishop said that the commission has postponed all public hearings, public information sessions, and site visits scheduled through the end of April until further notice. The commission is holding scheduling conferences, status conferences, oral arguments, and workshops through the end of April via teleconference or webinar. Bishop added that the commission is deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to hold evidentiary hearings by webinar or teleconference, or to postpone them.

West Virginia: Small said that the next public hearing that the commission has scheduled is June 10, and that the commission has not yet needed to postpone any hearings.