According to North Carolina Utilities Commissioner James G. Patterson, the most important role of utilities regulators is to “balance the interests of consumers/ratepayers and utility/shareholders.” To him, Commissioners should “strive to keep rates as low as reasonably possible while allowing utilities and their investors to earn a sufficient return to attract capital at a reasonable cost and maintain adequate, reliable service to consumers.” In North Carolina, “we have monopoly service, and investor-owned utilities that are fully regulated by the Commission,” which “has no regulatory authority except that conferred upon it by statute.” Sage words for a Commissioner who began in tenure in 2013, following an appointment by Governor Pat McCrory.
Prior to taking his seat on the NCUC, Commissioner Patterson was at the helm of a public relations firm, and has a background that includes time served in various higher education posts. Among his many skills, Commissioner Patterson is also expert at marketing and crisis management.
As a utilities regular, Commissioner Patterson gets to address a variety of critical issues facing members of low-income or vulnerable communities, chief among them are “continued affordability as we face increasing costs to replace aging facilities; comply with environmental regulations, including carbon emissions; and generally increasing costs to the utility for its own payroll and benefits.” Interesting, Commissioner Patterson also notes that “while health issues may also be important, the NCUC does not set environmental standards, but approves utility plans to provide adequate, reliable service that does meet existing environmental standards.”
In considering the impact of these and other issues, Commissioner Patterson is obliged to apply a public interest standard to the Commission’s decisions. “In promulgating or amending regulations, the NCUC takes into consideration comments filed by the regulated utilities as well as the affected consumers,” he says. “The ratepayer advocate in NC, the Public Staff, intervenes on behalf of ratepayers in all such proceedings and presents the perspective of consumers. In addition, several other groups often intervene on behalf of specific consumer segments, including industrial consumers, large commercial customers, or low-income consumers.”
For all the pressure that utilities commissioners face in their decision making process, Commissioner Patterson believes that consumers have an important role to play as well. “People can become more involved in the NCUC’s decision making by following the dockets at the NCUC. Dockets are the schedule of cases on the Commission’s Calendar. Members of the public may sign up for email notification of generic proceedings before the NCUC, proceedings involving utilities of which they are customers, or any other proceedings that might interest them.”
According to Commissioner Patterson, “the NCUC has a number of proceedings held on a regular basis, such as resource planning for electric utilities or rate rider proceedings for electric and natural gas utilities. Notice is provided directly to affected customers of rate cases filed by utilities regulated by the NCUC. In other cases, such as construction of solar photovoltaic facilities, public notice is published in local newspapers. Thus, there are numerous ways consumers can stay informed of proceedings at the NCUC.” While
Beyond educating consumers about ways to get involved in the various proceedings being taken up by the NCUC, it’s also important for people to understand the special role the state Commission plays relative to other regulatory bodies. “While they may regulate the same entities, states and the federal agencies generally regulate different aspects of the utility industry,” Commissioner Peterson says. “For example, in energy, FERC regulates wholesale transactions and pricing, while the NCUC regulates retail services and pricing. Similarly, in telecommunications, FCC regulates wholesale transactions and interstate service, while the NCUC regulates intrastate and retail service. The NCUC, individually and through its association, NARUC, provides formal and informal comments to FCC and FERC about areas within the federal agencies’ jurisdiction that impacts retail rates or other areas within the NCUC’s jurisdiction.”
Since beginning his term as one of seven public utilities commissioners in the state of North Carolina, Commissioner Patterson has developed a passion for “learning about the issues around the electric, gas, water, communications and transportation entities that we regulate. It is an ever changing regulatory environment with new challenges every day,” he says. Even as he gains a greater understanding about regulated utilities and the industries encompassed under that umbrella, Commissioner Patterson values the diversity he and his colleagues bring to their work and believes “different perspectives are important and tend to generate deeper more robust discussion of issues.”
To Commissioner Patterson, the Commission plays an important role in making a-political decisions within the confines of what its members are legislative directed and enabled to do. “Getting facts, having good data, having good counsel and having an open mind are the keys to good policy making,” he says. According to Commissioner Patterson, he and his colleagues spend the majority of our time doing research and analysis. Fortunately for his colleagues and the various parties affected by the decisions the Commission makers, his previous experience as a marketing and public relations consultant involved a great deal of research and analysis and he is well adept at solving the problems the Commission must face.