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New energy regulators take oath

Doug Little (left) and Tom Forese (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Doug Little (left) and Tom Forese (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

The state’s two newest energy regulators took their oath of office today. And for their first official act, Doug Little and Tom Forese helped to elect incumbent Susan Bitter Smith as the Arizona Corporation Commission’s new chairwoman.

Forese and Little, who won their elections in November, are joining the regulatory agency as it grapples with profound changes in the energy landscape that are threatening the traditional utility model and pushes back against a federal government that many believe seeks to wean the nation from coal.

The new commissioners are also jumping in at a time when the energy industry is beset by an incessant and often nasty feud between utilities, particularly Arizona Public Service, and rooftop solar firms, whose market is rapidly expanding in Arizona.

The two men were sworn into office by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Both became emotional while giving speeches from the dais. Little cried as he noted the difficulties of and sacrifices made during the campaign. Forese choked up while paying tribute to O’Connor as a trailblazer. Noting that he has daughters and fighting back tears, he said, “I have high hopes for them.”

But it was the gravity of the office and the challenges it faces that pervaded the swearing in ceremony.

Incumbent Commissioner Bob Burns talked about the “excitement of the times.”

“I think the transition especially in the electrical power world is very exciting,” he said, adding that the commission will be grappling with “tremendous changes.”

Commissioner Bob Stump, who relinquished his chairmanship today after a two-year stint, quoted the political theorist Edmund Burke to sum up his philosophy when dealing with issues before the commission.

“‘A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve’ is a superb metric for ratemaking, as a matter of fact,” he said.

This view, he said, eschews grand schemes and revolutions, opting for instead for “realism with regard to the public interest.”

The new commission faces several immediate issues, including an inquiry into accusations that solar leasing companies are engaged in deceptive marketing practices and whether to treat rooftop solar firms as public service corporations that fall under the commission’s regulatory orbit.

The new commission will also have to decide whether to take up a staff-driven proposal to investigate whether the renewable energy rule that requires utilities to derive an increasing portion of their power from residential solar and other distributed energy sources should be scrapped.

Bitter Smith, who was picked as chairwoman via a unanimous voice vote, noted the commission’s broad duties, which include enforcement against securities fraud.

“I do expect, just as we’ve discovered in the last two years, that because we deal with high profile issues, those decisions will continue to attract public involvement of outside groups, and their attention, I think, will be mounting,” she said.

“Let me be clear, though, every commissioner on this dais is an independent thinker and primed to do the job they were elected to do, predicated on the facts of the issues presented to us, not on the outside noise,” she added.

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