If Jackie Roberts is at a party and someone asks her what she does for a living, she often replies that, if she explained her job, they’d be looking for a way out of the conversation.
But they might stick around to listen, if they knew the many ways Roberts saves them money.
Saving money for consumers by fighting for them in rate proceedings and policy fights that threaten to bloat their utility bills has been Roberts’ job as West Virginia’s consumer advocate for the past seven years.
Now she’s moving on from her post as director of the state Public Service Commission’s Consumer Advocate Division to become a federal policy adviser for the PSC on Jan. 18, a role in which she will focus on PJM, the regional transmission organization that coordinates wholesale electricity movement in all or parts of 13 states, including West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Certain utility rates have escalated quickly for West Virginian customers in recent years, according to the Consumer Advocate Division’s 2020 annual report, which notes an 18% increase in monthly utility costs for Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power customers in Charleston and Wheeling, respectively, from 2016 to 2020 and a 36% monthly utility cost hike for West Virginia American Water customers over the same span.
“People say to me all the time, ‘Well, if you’re the consumer advocate, why are our rates going up?’” Roberts said. “They’re going up because the utilities have a legal right to recover costs and investment that they expend or make to provide service. And, with the involvement of the consumer advocate, those rates go up less than they otherwise would go up without the consumer advocate.”
In 2018, the PSC approved agreements to provide $409.3 million in tax savings toward customer rates after the PSC had been considering how utility companies should use savings accumulated through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division and other groups got involved to make sure utilities passed those savings on to customers.
The West Virginia Legislature created the Consumer Advocate Division in 1981 to represent the interests of residential customers. The division is independent from the PSC, does not help individual customers with utility problems and has a separate budget and staff — one Roberts calls “tiny.”
“I have three attorneys, two analysts and a woman who runs everything in the office,” Roberts said. “We are completely outgunned, number-wise, but we work hard to know what the important issues are and to litigate those.”
“The Commission is really excited that Jackie Roberts will be our new Federal Liaison,” PSC Chairwoman Charlotte Lane wrote in a statement. “So much of our work involves PJM, FERC [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate electricity, natural gas and oil transmission] and other federal agencies we felt we needed a full-time person devoted to those activities. Jackie, with her extensive background with PJM and other federal agencies, is a perfect fit.”
Roberts serves as president of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates and was president, founder and member of the Consumer Advocates of PJM Inc., a nonprofit whose members represent consumers in the 13 PJM states and the District of Columbia. Roberts was previously an attorney with the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel and corporate counsel to electric and natural gas utilities in New England.
The PSC has not yet appointed a successor to Roberts and is accepting applications for a new consumer advocate.
“Jackie Roberts will take decades of experience and broad institutional knowledge with her when she goes, but the Commission has the opportunity to fill the position with someone who has the same, deep commitment to protect ratepayers from the fuzzy utility math we sometimes see in rate and surcharge cases,” Karan Ireland, the West Virginia Sierra Club’s senior campaign representative, said in a statement. “It’s imperative that this appointment be someone not beholden to utility interests, but rather someone focused on watching out for everyday West Virginians.”
Emmett Pepper, executive director of Energy Efficient West Virginia, a nonprofit working to grow the state’s energy efficiency industry, noted a report by Save on Energy earlier this month that found West Virginia had the second-highest average electricity bill in the country in September in arguing that the state needs consumer advocacy.
“She’s been a highly competent and effective advocate for consumers,” Pepper said of Roberts in a statement. “These are complicated cases, and it takes someone like Jackie to do it right. Hopefully, the Commission can find somebody who can meet her high standard.”
Utility bills have always been a cause of concern for Roberts, but especially so throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated many West Virginians. Preliminary figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show West Virginia’s estimated total number of unemployed people remains about 20% higher than it was in February.
Roberts said she believes utility companies that serve West Virginians should have been doing more to provide direct relief for their residential customers hit hard by the pandemic.
“Many of these customers have never missed a utility payment before, not just low-income customers that are feeling the economic pinch of the coronavirus, but all kinds of people,” Roberts said. “I’m very concerned because, once you lose your utilities, it’s very likely you’re going to lose your apartment or your home, and then we’re going to have a tsunami of homelessness in West Virginia. We should avoid that at all costs.”
Roberts noted that many utility companies that serve West Virginia declined to contribute more this year to the Dollar Energy Fund, a Pittsburgh-based organization that provides utility assistance grants to those with limited incomes and counts several West Virginia-serving utilities among its partners.
“I think this is a really important topic for West Virginia because, even when the coronavirus is under control, the economic damage is going to linger on,” Roberts said. “[W]e need more dollars to help customers, and we need some real leadership from the utilities on how to address this problem.”
Dominion Energy contributed an additional $25,000 to the Dollar Energy Fund for West Virginia in 2020, on top of its usual annual $25,000 contribution, according to Christine Mitchell, external affairs manager for Dominion Energy.
But Appalachian Power and FirstEnergy contributed the same amounts to the Dollar Energy Fund as they did in 2019 ($525,000 and $250,000 respectively), according to their spokespeople.
Appalachian Power, FirstEnergy, West Virginia American Water and Dominion Energy reported volunteering to observe a moratorium on shutoffs, contacting customers ahead of resuming disconnections or those eligible for federal CARES Act funding to help them with their funding applications and donating relief grants to food banks.
But Roberts said they should be doing more, recalling Ameren Missouri’s 2018 announcement of a $5 million donation program for energy assistance to help limited-income electric and gas customers statewide.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources processed approximately 26,000 federal fiscal-year 2021 household applications for the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program as of last week, according to Jessica N. Holstein, DHHR assistant director of communications. There has been a slight increase in applications from last year’s total because of COVID-19, Holstein said.
As she prepares for her new job, Roberts continues to advocate for utility customers who have gone on too long without one, noting that Gov. Jim Justice’s allocation of $25 million in CARES Act funding for utility payment assistance covers only unpaid bills from March 1 through July 31. That relief funding wasn’t prepared for distribution until October, according to the Governor’s Office. Lane said more than 133,000 residential utility customers across the state who had unpaid utility bills from March through July qualified to receive the financial assistance.
“Our utility customers are really hurting,” Roberts said.