I’m learning how to surf. For my birthday, my kids got together and bought me a surfboard. One day last summer I spent about three hours in the waves off of Popham Beach in Maine trying to figure things out. After about 60 attempts — no kidding — trying to catch a wave, I finally caught one. But I had help. I got tips from my kids, and from other surfers about things, like when to paddle hard and where to place myself on the board. When I finally caught that wave, all that paddling and the soreness in my neck and shoulders faded away. I was lifted and carried forward at easily three times the speed while the others alongside me and I were effortlessly propelled forward toward the shore by the energy of that wave.
I was recently reminded of my first day surfing as I read an order from the North Carolina Utility Commission (NCUC) in which it recognized that it too could use a little help better understanding the implications of the wave of federal funding — $1.2 trillion over eight years) — that is about to reach the states.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) makes available billions of dollars for investment in utility infrastructure, including support for electric vehicle charging, smart distribution grid improvements, energy storage, and water system resilience and security. Referring to the IIJA, the NCUC opened its order with a “preliminary conclusion”:
It is in the public interest for the public utilities of this State to fully and carefully consider taking advantage of these available federal grants and loans, in order to promote adequate, reliable, and economical utility service to the citizens and residents of the State.
The order poses basic questions like:
- Which federal programs could assist utilities in meeting their obligations?
- What actions does the NCUC need to take to facilitate access to the funds?
- What other organizations will utilities need to coordinate with?
- What actions are other state agencies taking or considering?
More than a dozen utilities and others provided comments to the NCUC in this docket. The order not only brought together these parties, encouraging their insights and testing their ideas, but it also created a larger public conversation about the best ways to spend federal dollars for utilities in North Carolina. It is the Commission’s role to ensure that the power sector develops in a manner that promotes the public good, and the NCUC recognizes that responses to the questions posed in the three-page order will enhance its expertise to best promote that public good.
Other states should consider taking a page from the NCUC’s playbook. It will create the opportunity to be more informed and better positioned to make decisions you very likely will need to make. Why wait until you are constrained by limitations associated with having to review a filing in a contested case? After all, who would be better situated to render a decision: a commission that has reviewed diverse comments and participated in discussions regarding the best ways to use federal dollars for the benefit of its state prior to having to review an actual proposal, or a commission that hasn’t?
Riding a wave requires help. Adopting the North Carolina approach will better position your utility commission to ride the oncoming wave of federal funding for the benefit of your utility sector and state economy.