PHOENIX — State utility regulator Doug Little is leaving to take a job in the Trump administration.
Little, elected by voters to a four-year term on the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2014, will become deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental and external affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy. There, Little said he will be working in sync with the president and his administration in maintaining “fossil base-load generation” to ensure that electricity remains both available and reliable.
That means coal.
“I’ve been talking about that myself for six months already,” he said.
But Little, in an extensive interview Wednesday with Capitol Media Services, said that does not mean eliminating or minimizing renewable sources like wind or solar. What it does mean, he said, is making sure the merits of each are properly measured.
For example, he said, when virtually all the energy came from base loads like coal, that automatically ensured reliability and even maintaining the voltage levels in the entire grid. But solar and wind, he said, do not, something that has to be factored in when weighing them against coal.
None of that makes Little a foe of renewable energy. In fact, last year he proposed a major revamp of the commission-imposed requirements of how much of their power electric utilities get from renewable resources.
The current standard, adopted a decade ago, requires regulated electric companies to get 15 percent of their power from renewables by 2025. Little argued that advances in technology have dramatically lowered costs, suggesting boosting that goal to 30 percent, albeit by 2030.
Little said his big regret on leaving now is the failure to gain a complete review of the renewable energy standard. But he does leave behind an open docket item on the issue which awaits feedback from various interests.
“I’m hoping that one of our current commissioners may pick that up and run with it,” Little said.
Little became chairman of the commission in late 2015 after Susan Bitter Smith was forced out after Attorney General Mark Brnovich charged that her role as a consultant for the cable industry created an illegal conflict of interest. He said there were “obviously a lot of morale issues” at the commission and he is proud of his role in helping to keep the panel running, even as all the major utilities were looking for rate hikes.
But Little found himself embroiled in a separate controversy after two “dark money” groups spent $3.2 million in 2014 to elect him and fellow Republican Tom Forese. The groups are refusing to disclose the source of the funds and Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility which had a pending rate case before the commission at the time, will neither confirm nor deny it provided all or much of that cash.
Little said he did nothing wrong, noting he ran for office with public funds and had no legal right to control what others spent on his behalf.
More recently, APS admitted it spent another $4.2 million in the 2016 race to ensure the commission remained an all-Republican affair. That raised questions about whether utilities should be financially involved in helping elect regulators.
Little sidestepped the issue, saying campaign finance laws and disclosure requirements are not within the purview of the commission.
“If somebody thinks there needs to be a different set of rules for the commission to operate under, then that needs to come from the Legislature,” he said. “They need to figure out what they think should happen.”
There is an alternative to electing commissioners and allowing outsiders — and utilities — to flood the race with dollars: appointment. But Little, who said he’s met regulators chosen under both systems from across the country said he’s not convinced one method is better than the other.
“I’ve known some appointed guys that were absolutely fantastic and were great regulators,” he said. “I’ve also known some appointed regulators that were kind of a warm bag of spit.”
Ditto, he said, among elected commissioners he has known.
“If I had to say, I would always prefer someone who is elected by the people versus someone who is appointed by a single individual,” he said.
As it turns out, that’s what’s going to happen next: The remainder of Little’s term will be filled by someone appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey.
“This is an important position and Gov. Ducey will take a thoughtful approach to filling this vacancy with an individual who is qualified to do the job,” said gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato.
This actually would be Ducey’s second appointment. He named Andy Tobin to the panel following Bitter Smith’s resignation; Tobin won election to a full four-year term last year.