Eric Skrmetta and Forest Bradley Wright, the two candidates in the Dec. 6 runoff for the District 1 seat on the state Public Service Commission, are as diametrically opposed on the topic of alternative energy as two people can be.
Wright is an advocate for alternative energy — that derived from nontraditional sources such as solar and wind energy. He says consumers should be able to choose their energy source without interference or restriction from public utilities. Skrmetta has traditionally supported public utilities in their effort to limit just how much renewable energy, particularly solar power, customers can use.
Which of those positions Louisiana residents want to represent them on the PSC will be decided Dec. 6.
Despite the backing of large public utilities and a campaign war chest that dwarfed those of his challengers, Skrmetta came in second in the Nov. 4 primary — a result that surprised many political observers.
He captured about 37 percent of the vote, just behind Wright’s 38 percent. Realtor Allen “Al” Leone took the other 25 percent.
That means nearly two-thirds of voters weren’t happy enough with Skrmetta — who wrapped his campaign around a boast that he has helped save customers more than $4 billion by denying requests from public utilities to raise rates — to back him for another term.
Those voters instead ticked the box for candidates who accused Skrmetta of being a puppet for the public utility companies he regulates as a PSC commissioner.
Skrmetta shot back that Wright, a consumer advocate specializing in energy policy, does the bidding of the solar industry.
The Public Service Commission regulates rates for publicly owned utilities providing electric, water, wastewater, natural gas and telecommunication services in most of the state. The commission also must grant approval to those companies before they can issue new stocks and bonds or begin major construction projects such as adding power plants or transmission lines. The independent body also regulates intrastate transportation services.
The commission does not regulate utility companies in Orleans Parish, where the City Council handles that task.
The 1st District, one of five commission jurisdictions in the state, spans 11 parishes in southeast Louisiana, including all of St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and parts of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes.
Commissioners serve overlapping six-year terms. Skrmetta was first elected in 2008.
The winner of the race will play a large role in deciding the future growth of solar power in the state.
Louisiana now has, and Skrmetta supports, a cap on how much electricity homes with rooftop solar systems can sell back to the power grid to receive full credit on their energy bill. The state cap is activated when rooftop solar power reaches 0.5 percent of any utility’s peak demand, one of the lowest limits in the nation.
Skrmetta said the so-called net-metering is necessary to prevent customers who generate their own electricity and also use utility-generated electricity from putting a drain on the system, sending rates higher for customers who don’t use solar systems.
Wright, the former utility policy director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a New Orleans consumer watchdog group, said he would work to ease such restrictions on solar energy production. The restrictions benefit the big utilities and hinder economic development and job creation, he said.
He supports the ability of consumers to produce their own energy and to use the energy source that is the “lowest-cost, most affordable” option.
Although both candidates list themselves as Republicans, Skrmetta accuses Wright of being a Republican in name only. Wright, previously a Democrat, switched to the Republican Party earlier this year.
Skrmetta received the endorsements of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, the Republican Party of Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. U.S. Sen. David Vitter and U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise and Cedric Richmond also have lined up in Skrmetta’s camp.
Skrmetta touts his ability to work with the state’s other elected officials to resolve consumer issues. He said he is the only candidate qualified to address “unfunded federal mandates” such as a new regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at cutting carbon pollution from power plants.
“I think I’ve shown that I’ve been an aggressive champion for consumers in protecting us from unfunded mandates,” Skrmetta said.
Skrmetta’s campaign contributors include PSC-regulated companies Atmos Energy, AT&T and Baton Rouge Water.
Before announcing his candidacy, Wright was a familiar face at PSC meetings as he lobbied the commission to make consumer-friendly decisions on utility matters. Wright, who also ran for the PSC’s District 2 seat in 2012, said he was compelled to seek office after witnessing the “undue level of influence” utilities have on the commissioners.
As a commissioner, Wright said, he would support investments in energy efficiency and would work to increase consumer choice for energy and high-speed Internet. He said he also would seek to change the approval process for companies seeking to build power plants.
“We certainly have a great need for additional energy generation in the coming years, but it has to be part of a deliberative and transparent process where all options are laid on the table,” Wright said. “That includes traditional energy. It also includes nontraditional energy and energy efficiency so that we know that we are investing in the lowest-cost, most affordable energy resources.”
Wright has received financial backing from several solar companies as well as the Alliance for Solar Choice and KD Homes Builder.