What goes into selecting those charged with being regulators of Xcel Energy and other utilities in Colorado during a time of rapid change?
by Allen Best
Tom Plant has been appointed by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to the state’s Public Utilities Commission, subject to confirmation by the Colorado State Senate. The Polis team hopes to have Plant in place by Feb. 1.
If Plant is confirmed, he will replace John Gavan, who was appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper in late 2018 shortly before Polis took office.
The PUC, if still an obscure state agency in the public mind, is tasked with making thousands of big and small decisions that collectively frame how Colorado’s energy system is being reinvented for the 21st century.
What were the considerations in choosing Plant?
First, there is the constitutional requirement that not all three commissioners can be of the same political party. In this case, Gavan was politically independent. That allowed Polis to later appoint two Democrats, Megan Gilman and Eric Blank.
As a state legislator from Boulder County from 1999 to 2007, Plant was a registered Democrat. He remained a registered Democrat until 2016, when he became unaffiliated. In this, his selection clears the constitutional bar.
Gubernatorial appointments can also get pushback from legislators, even when they are of the same party. Consider the appointment of Susan Perkins to the PUC two years ago. Democrats were in the majority in the Senate then, as now. But Pueblo’s Leroy Garcia, then the Senate president, wouldn’t take action. Before her appointment, Perkins had co-written an op-ed published in the Pueblo Chieftain urging Pueblo residents to municipalize their electrical services, ending the Black Hills Energy monopoly.
Already ruffled that Frances Koncilja, a native of Pueblo, had not been reappointed to the PUC, the Pueblo Chieftain editorially questioned the appointment: “In a state as large as Colorado, it’s hard to imagine that the governor couldn’t have found someone with a less adversarial relationship with one of the two major electricity companies the PUC regulates.”
Garcia asked for advice from the state’s Office of Legislative Legal Services, which delivered this opinion:
“A background with certain advocacy groups would likely provide sufficient grounds for a member of the PUC to need to disqualify themselves from hearing matters involving utilities where impartiality could be questioned. Acceding to such requests (for recusal) would severely hamper the ability of the PUC to hear cases involving major electric utilities in the state.”
Polis withdrew the name of Perkins and instead nominated Gilman, who was swiftly approved.
Ron Lehr, a PUC commissioner from 1983 to 1991, says ideally that PUC members should have geographic and professional diversity. Having all lawyers, all engineers, or all economists is never good. And it’s best to have the commissioners from varied places in the state.
For example, three economists from Boulder just wouldn’t be advised.
Gilman was trained as a mechanical engineer prior to operating a solar business in Eagle County. Blank is a lawyer and economist who also has business experience in both the wind and solar sectors.
Gavan was ideal in many respects. Politically unaffiliated, he was trained as an engineer and spent most of his career involved in technology, beginning in the U.S. Navy, where he served as an engineering and communications officer on a guided missile destroyer. He then spent 19 years as a director of information technology at MCI Communications, part of that time in Colorado Springs.
Relocating to Paonia, he was a director of the local electrical cooperative, Delta-Montrose Electric, and put on an energy conference.
“You would no more replace John Gavan than you would replace Tom Brady,” says the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Auden Schendler. “By nature, a critical guy, I don’t very often praise people the way that I praise John. He’s as good as it gets.”
Why would a John Gavan be replaced? Perhaps, because he wanted to be.
“It’s a burn-out job, in my experience,” says Lehr, who can recite precisely how long he was on the commission: “Six years, 10 months and one day.”
Lehr cites the “steady drumbeat of the docket,” by which he means the decisions large and small that have to be made by commissioners. To prepare for the Wednesday meetings, he would often read documents that were 4 to 10 inches thick. The longer he was at it, he says, the more difficult it became.
Lehr also points out what might seem obvious: the appointee must be on board with the agenda of the agency. In this case, the PUC is figuring out how to decarbonize energy as instructed by several dozen laws passed by legislators since 2019. With that in mind, a Don Coram, a Republican from the Western Slope, would not be a good fit, whatever his qualifications. He told Big Pivots in a 2021 interview that he didn’t believe Colorado’s decarbonization goals were attainable.
In this regard, Plant fits the bill. He was engaged in the early stages of the energy transition as a legislator then ran the Colorado Energy Office for several years in the administration of Gov. Bill Ritter.
When Ritter left the governor’s mansion to found the Center for the New Energy Economy in 2011, Plant followed him. He remains a senior policy adviser at the non-profit, which is affiliated with Colorado State University.
In recent years, Plant has overseen two summer camps for legislators and legislative staffers. Called the Clean Energy Legislative Academy, the week-long camps have drawn state legislators from three dozen states for what the organization’s website calls a “politically neutral forum to learn about clean energy policy, discuss challenges, and speak freely.”
Lehr sees Plant as a strong nominee, one who is “very smart and has a very active mind.”Schendler concurs with his support: “As far as climate change goes, Polis is generally making the right appointments to the critical boards,” he says.
Gwen Farnsworth, who has been monitoring the PUC on behalf of Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates for 12 years, applauded Plant’s selection to the three-person commission that will, she said, “be pivotal for implementing a range of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado.”
The PUC during the next several years will have to address a wide-ranging variety of topics: acquisitions of large-scale generation, revamped gas-distribution systems, and different types of electric technology for space and water heating.
“This requires an integrated analysis and vision to bring it all together,” added Farnsworth, “and I think that Tom Plant has the background, experience and dedication to do that.”
Leslie Glustrom, who has worn various hats as a watchdog of Xcel Energy, said that the test of Plant’s effectiveness will be the extent to which he is willing to stand up to the utility, Colorado’s largest by far.
“The question is whether Tom Plant or whoever gets nominated will be a strong enough regulator to ensure that the clean energy transition occurs as cost-effectively as possible and that ratepayers don’t have to pay monopoly prices for a product that should be costing less.”
Xcel has committed to closing coal plants. It closed a 50-year-old coal-burning unit in Pueblo during December and has committed to closing four other coal-burning units by the end of 2030 and converting one coal plant to natural gas.
In replacement, the investor-owned company will be building a vast amount of wind and transmission, primarily in eastern Colorado, in the next five years at a cost of not quite $10 billion. Xcel customers must pay for the investments.Glustrom describes this investment as “gold-plated” and advocates for a different blend of new renewable generation, more locally focused, and deployment of new technologies that can minimize investment in generation and transmission.
“We need to make sure that Xcel starts using 21st century tools instead of insisting on the 20th century paradigm and profit-taking system,” Glustrom said.
She cited the emerging tools and business models including microgrids, virtual power plants, and artificial intelligence, and machine learning that can be used to manage the 21st century grid.
The governor’s staff conducted interviews with six candidates. The names of candidates were never released, although one individual whose name emerged time and time again was that of Wade Troxell, the former mayor of Fort Collins – and a Republican – who has been deeply engaged professionally in the energy transition.
Schendler suggested that he had been consulted on potential nominees. Try as he might, though, he could not come up with a solid prospect from Republicans on the Western Slope.
Asked for comment about the selection process, the Polis staff offered this statement:
“The Governor takes seriously the appointment of PUC Commissioners and other public servants who make important decisions impacting Coloradans and fight for lower utility rates. Throughout the appointment process, Mr. Plant discussed his bi-partisan efforts in the energy space, his deep knowledge of issues facing the PUC, his desire to protect the interests of Colorado ratepayers, and his shared desire to prioritize customers across Colorado if he had the opportunity to serve in this role. Mr. Plant complements and balances the experiences and perspectives of the other commissioners, which is important for sound decision-making and to deliver on lower rates.”
An earlier version of this story was posted on Jan. 13.