800 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2000
Seattle, WA 98104
The Public Counsel Unit is comprised of two attorneys, three regulatory analysts, and support staff. The unit represents the customers of state-regulated, investor-owned utility companies. These include telecommunications companies, such as CenturyLink and Frontier, and electric and gas companies, such as Puget Sound Energy, Avista Utilities, and PacifiCorp.
Legal Services Provided
The Public Counsel Unit represents the customers of Washington’s investor-owned telephone, electric, and natural gas utilities regulated by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), including CenturyLink, Frontier, Puget Sound Energy, Avista, and Pacific Power. Public Counsel represents the interests of residential and small business consumers on issues, such as rates, service quality, conservation, business practices, mergers, and competition.
Public Counsel advocates for the interests of consumers by presenting evidence and legal arguments in major rate cases, mergers, and other cases and rulemakings before the UTC. In addition, Public Counsel makes presentations at the UTC Open Meeting on consumer issues and participates in industry advisory and study groups reviewing utility resource planning and conservation programs. Public Counsel also provides information to the Legislature and other state policy makers and may appeal UTC decisions in appropriate cases.
The office maintains contact with the public through a citizen advisory committee, community organizations, public hearings, personal contact, and letters and telephone calls from consumers in major cases.
2015 Avista General Rate Case
In February 2015, Avista filed a rate case requesting increased rates for both its electric and natural gas services. For electric service, Avista requested an increase of $33 million, or 6.6 percent. For natural gas, Avista requested an increase of $12 million, or 7 percent. In April, Public Counsel, Avista, and other parties reached a settlement on a number of issues, including cost of capital, rate spread and rate design, and several power cost items. On July 27, 2015, Public Counsel filed testimony recommending that the UTC reduce Avista’s electric rates by $29 million (-5.9 percent) and limit the rate increase to $3.3M (roughly 2 percent) for natural gas customers. Included in its testimony, Public Counsel recommended that the UTC not allow the company rate recovery for a proposed smart meter deployment and also recommended increased funding for low-income assistance programs. The Commission held a hearing in early October 2015 and is expected to issue a decision in January 2016.
2015 PacifiCorp Rate Case (Expedited Rate Filing)
On November 25, 2015, PacifiCorp filed a rate case structured as an expedited rate filing request with the UTC, which includes a two-year rate plan and decoupling mechanism. The request would increase electric rates by $10 million or 2.99 percent beginning May 1, 2016, with an additional increase of 2.99 percent or $10.3 million, beginning May 1, 2017. Public Counsel will be participating in this case on behalf of PacifiCorp’s residential and small business customers in Washington state. A hearing is set for May 2 - 3, 2016.
2015 Cascade Natural Gas General Rate Case
On December 1, 2015,Cascade filed a request to increase rates for natural gas service by approximately $10.5 million or 4.17 percent. The Company is proposing that residential customers bear 100 percent of the proposed rate increase. The Company also seeks approval for a decoupling mechanism. Public Counsel will be participating in this case on behalf of Cascade’s Washington residential and small business customers. The case schedule will be set in January.
CenturyLink 911 Outage Complaint Case
The Commission issued a complaint against CenturyLink regarding the April 2014 911 outage. 911 services were unavailable for six hours beginning at 11:54 p.m. on April 9, 2014 and ending at 6:06 a.m. on April 10, 2014. The Commission Staff’s investigation identified over 11,000 violations of statute and rules. Commission Staff reached a settlement with CenturyLink that provides for $2.8 million in penalties. Public Counsel filed testimony in opposition of the settlement on October 27, 2015. Public Counsel recommended that the Commission apply the maximum statutory penalty of $1,000 per violation due to the severity of the impact on the public. The maximum penalty in this case is an $11.5 million penalty. The hearing for this case is scheduled for January 12, 2016.
UTC Colstrip Investigation
In late July 2015 following adjournment of the legislature, the Commission initiated an investigation into the costs associated with the closure of the PSE-owned coal-fired facilities Colstrip Units 1 and 2. As part of this investigation, the Commission stated it would review the costs associated with decommissioning and necessary environmental remediation, other expenditures related to plant retirement, and the amount of funds currently held by utilities for the purpose of decommissioning the affected coal facilities. The Commission stated that it may in the future expand the investigation to include the adequacy of existing provisions for the decommissioning and retirement of other coal-fired generating units under its jurisdiction, including those owned by other electric utilities, and the degree to which these provisions are captured in rates charged to Washington customers. The Commission issued a list of questions to PSE to provide factual information about the plant. Responses were filed in September 2015 by PSE, Sierra Club, Public Counsel, and other interested parties. Public Counsel asked the Commission to pursue several follow-up questions about the information filed by PSE. The Commission issued a notice of opportunity to file additional responsive comments to issues, interests, and concerns raised in the docket. In December 2015, Public Counsel filed comments addressing concerns regarding the scope and completeness of information provided by PSE regarding the cost and impact of decommissioning and remediation of Colstrip Units 1 and 2.
PSE Liquified Natural Gas Petition
On August 11, 2015, PSE filed a Petition for Approval of a special contract for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) fuel service with Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), Inc. The Company also sought approval for a methodology for allocating the costs between regulated and non-regulated services. The LNG facility would be built in Tacoma and would provide gas storage for PSE for winter peaking needs, as well as supply LNG fuel to TOTE under a special contract potentially regulated by the UTC, as well as unregulated LNG service to other maritime or truck/fleet/industrial purposes. Public Counsel and other parties responded with a number of concerns, including the cost impact to customers and the relationship between the proposed regulated/unregulated operations and facilities. The Commission set the matter for adjudication, and on November 24, 2015, parties filed briefs addressing the threshold question of whether the Commission has jurisdiction over the proposed LNG service. Public Counsel and the Commission Staff recommended that the Commission determine that it does not have jurisdiction over the proposed LNG marine fuel service under the TOTE special contract. In December 2015, the Commission ruled that the proposed TOTE service was not within the Commission’s jurisdiction but allowed PSE further time to propose an alternative regulated service.
Puget Sound Energy 2011 General Rate Case
PSE filed a request to increase electric rates by $160 million annually ( 8.4 percent) and natural gas rates by $30 million ( 3.4 percent). Public Counsel, commission staff, and other parties challenged significant aspects of the request at hearing. The commission cut more than $75 million from the PSE requests, allowing PSE only a 3.2 percent electric and 1.3 percent gas rate increase. The commission also rejected PSE’s proposal for a “Conservation Savings Adjustment, ” opposed by Public Counsel and other parties, which would have added a $12 million annual surcharge to customer bills to replace revenue lost by PSE due to customers' conservation efforts.
Avista 2011 General Rate Case
Avista’s general rate case in 2011 sought to raise electric rates by $38.3 million (9.1 percent residential) and gas rates by $6.2 million (5.1 percent residential). Along with other parties, Public Counsel helped negotiate a settlement in which Avista agreed to cut the size of the rate increase in half, to drop a request to increase the basic monthly charge, and to remove improper charges to ratepayers for Board of Directors costs, advertising, charitable contributions, and other items. Avista also agreed to drop a proposal that would have increased rates to compensate for Avista losing revenue due to conservation by its customers.
PacifiCorp 2011 General Rate Case
PacifiCorp filed a request in 2011 to increase its electric rates by approximately $13 million (4.3 percent), immediately following a $38 million increase the prior year. Public Counsel and other parties negotiated a settlement with PacifiCorp, reducing the size of the rate increase substantially to only 1.5 percent. PacifiCorp also agreed not to file a new rate request until at least January 2013, the longest such “stay out” agreement in any recent case.
PSE “Pipeline Integrity ” Surcharge
PSE filed a request with the UTC for a new $6 million annual surcharge on customer bills to accelerate recovery of costs of replacing natural gas pipe, along with additional shareholder profit. Public Counsel opposed the plan, since PSE already recovers pipeline costs in general rates, PSE could not show a convincing safety-related justification for the plan or verify that pipeline replacement would occur more quickly. The commission rejected the PSE proposal, consistent with Public Counsel’s and other party recommendations, and initiated a rulemaking to look at whether enhanced pipeline safety measures are needed for any company.
Qwest Building Sale
Following the merger between CenturyLink and Qwest Communications, CenturyLink asked the UTC for approval to sell Qwest’s downtown Seattle headquarters building as required by Washington law. In approving the sale, the UTC ordered the company to distribute $11.2 million of the sale proceeds to Washington consumers. At the UTC’s request, CenturyLink, Public Counsel, and commission staff developed an agreed plan for distributing the proceeds to Washington consumers by investing in broadband deployment to unserved and underserved areas over a 24-month period. This investment will enable approximately 4,022 households to obtain broadband service. An additional $100,000 will go to Community Voice Mail, which provides voice mail services for low-income customers.