Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s pick as the new head of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission is a sign that the new administration is serious about choosing key officials who can make a difference on energy efficiency and climate change, environmental campaigners said on Thursday.
The Democratic governor named Gladys Brown, a current member of the utilities regulator, as its new chair, replacing Robert Powelson, who remains on the panel as a commissioner.
Brown’s record as an advocate for energy efficiency, especially among low-income populations, indicates that she will steer the panel toward policies such as efficient appliances and renewable fuels to reduce carbon emissions, said Jackson Morris, director of eastern energy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We are very excited about the announcement, and see it as an indication that Governor Wolf really wants to put his stamp on clean-energy policy,” Morris said. “Gladys Brown will be a great chair of the PUC to push through policies that are supportive of clean energy and energy efficiency.”
Brown, an attorney who recently joined the board of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, has served as a PUC commissioner since 2013. Her current term expires in 2018. Prior to serving on PUC, she served as an aide and counsel to the Pennsylvania State Senate for nearly 23 years.
Morris said the appointment is consistent with Gov. Wolf’s recognition of climate change and his desire to offset it with measures like energy efficiency.
“They wouldn’t have made this selection unless the chair was going to be on board with that agenda,” Morris said.
Brown’s predecessor, Rob Powelson, had been a member of the Energy Action Team, a group of business leaders, politicians, and academics convened by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce to strategize about how to expand the fossil fuel energy industry in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Powelson left the group after StateImpact revealed a conflict of interest.
Brown has supported the state’s Act 129 energy efficiency program that encourages more efficient appliances, homes and commercial buildings, a portfolio that’s overseen by the PUC.
“Her decisions and statements on those sorts of programs historically indicate that’s a priority for her,” Morris said.
Brown is expected to promote energy-saving programs, especially among affordable multifamily housing, and to look closely at current PECO and PPL applications to increase the fixed-charge portions of their bills, a provision that NRDC opposes because it erodes the incentive for people to reduce energy consumption.
Under Brown, the PUC will also play an important role in determining how Pennsylvania complies with the new rules on power-plant emissions issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Morris said.
Rob Altenburg, director of the energy center at PennFuture, said Brown would likely help his organization’s goals on energy saving and renewables.
“I think that she’s going to be receptive to a lot of the issues that we care about,” he said.
But he said appointment of Brown, a Democrat, won’t change the panel’s political composition — which is currently dominated by Republican appointees by a majority of three to two – until the term of Commissioner Pamela Witmer, a Republican, expires in about a year’s time.
At that point, Gov. Wolf can be expected to appoint another Democrat, switching the majority party, and increasing the likelihood of the energy-efficient policies favored by Brown, Altenburg said. “That’s when you might see policy changes,” he said.
In a statement, Wolf said Brown would help to achieve the administration’s energy goals.
“We have a real opportunity to reposition the commonwealth as a leader in developing renewable energy and energy efficiencies,” he said. “Gladys shares my vision and has the experience to help advance policies to achieve this.