Select language:

Want to Lower Your Power Bills and Help Your State Fight Climate Change? Here’s Who to Talk to

In public utility commissions, we’re helping communities push for clean, affordable electricity for all. Here's what you should know about these key decision makers.

In a conference room somewhere in your state, a small, largely unseen group of people is casting votes that could make or break the clean energy transition.

Four people sit at a head table in a meeting room under a sign that says "Public Utilities Commission, with an audience in the foreground.
Commissioner John A. Tuma, left, speaks during a Minnesota Public Utilities Commission meeting in 2018, in St. Paul, Minn. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii / Star Tribune via AP)

You’ve probably never heard their names, and you might not even know the name of the agency they’re running: the state public utility commission (PUC). Fossil fuel interests would love to keep it that way.

PUCs regulate utilities. (In some states, they have other names, like public service commissions, or PSCs.) They determine the cost of your gas and electricity bills and where your power comes from, whether it’s fossil fuels, hydroelectricity, or renewables like wind and solar.

These state regulators have an enormous opportunity to speed the transition away from coal and gas, drive the buildout of clean energy, alleviate the climate crisis, and ensure we have affordable and reliable electricity.

In almost all states, community members have the right to comment at PUC meetings. But in the room where it happens, these commissions are often hearing from slick utility lawyers and consultants whose greenwashing would result in decades of dirty infrastructure that our planet cannot afford.

That’s why Earthjustice is in those rooms across the country, using our skills as litigators and our vast experience on energy issues to highlight the costs of coal and gas, make the case for affordable clean energy, and expand the range of options the PUCs consider as they architect everyone's green future.

Utilities too often tend to argue for old, dirty sources of power over renewables (more on this below). And well-resourced utilities can afford to hire experts to help them navigate the highly technical PUC proceedings, meaning that they have a huge advantage in making their case.

Earthjustice is one of the few organizations with the expertise to rise to the challenge of opposing the utilities. Our attorneys push back on those big-money arguments at PUC hearings, advocating for commissioners to choose clean, energy efficient solutions that yield financial and environmental benefits to everyone, instead of throwing a lifeline to fossil fuels.

Getting input from the public is therefore essential to informing commissioners about their constituents’ desire for clean energy. When the public isn't in the room, you can rest assured that profit-driven utilities are in there, making a case for expensive, polluting fossil fuels that their customers would be forced to pay for.

A community member speaks a West Virginia Public Service Commission hearing in 2017 to oppose the sale of the Pleasants Power Plant.

A community member speaks a West Virginia Public Service Commission hearing (above and below) in 2017 to oppose the sale of the Pleasants Power Plant. If the scheme had succeeded, Mon Power and Potomac Edison customers would have assumed all of the plant’s costs and financial risks, while FirstEnergy and its shareholders would receive a guaranteed revenue stream. More than 2,500 residents, businesses, and nonprofits successfully opposed the Pleasants Power Plant sale by speaking at the PSC’s three public hearings, filing letters of protest with the PSC, writing letters to the editor, and more. (Roger May for Earthjustice)

Community members fill a West Virginia Public Service Commission hearing in 2017 to oppose the sale of the Pleasants Power Plant.

Right now, there’s a big discrepancy between who gets to determine the cost of electricity and who bears the biggest burden of paying for it.

Over three-quarters of PUC commissioners are white, and nearly two-thirds are men. Yet low-income, Black, Hispanic, and Native American households all face dramatically higher energy burdens — spending a greater portion of their income on energy bills — than the average household.

Energy burden can force people to make excruciating choices, like keeping homes at an unhealthy temperature to save on utility bills or reducing important expenses like food or medicine.

That’s why it’s incredibly important that people know what’s going on at their state PUC, and that they have a say in dirty energy projects that could inflate their bill. Earthjustice fights rate increases, holds utilities accountable, and defends and expands energy efficiency programs.

A person in a large room filled with large monitors with maps and data, including some that fill the walls.

Workers at the California Independent System Operator monitor the state's high-voltage transmission grid. (Rolf Schulten / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

While utilities are starting to build utility-scale solar, wind, and storage (though not nearly as quickly as needed to address climate change), they try to maintain their monopoly on generating power by establishing barriers to renters, homeowners, or businesses from pursuing clean energy on their own.

For example, many utilities seek to increase monthly charges for solar panel-owning customers and refuse to compensate them fairly for the extra energy they produce.

Utilities also keep pushing to construct long-lived methane gas infrastructure that will lock us into a future of explosive gas lines, polluting power plants, and climate catastrophe. This is their perverse response to the fact that they make a guaranteed profit on every dollar spent on infrastructure, like billion-dollar gas plants whose presumed "useful life” stretches out for decades. Since utilities are privately owned by shareholders who are looking to make a profit, there is every incentive for them to convince PUCs that they need to keep building methane gas infrastructure, regardless of public demand or harm to the planet.

Construction workers prepare a very large wind turbine blade resting on the ground, with the tall turbine tower in the background.

Wind turbine construction near Mountainair, New Mexico. (Jeff Barger / Construction Photography / Avalon / Getty Images)

Together, we are making big strides in the following areas:

Speeding the transition to clean energy: We have pushed over 140 coal-fired power units into early retirement and we challenge utility plans to keep investing in expensive, uneconomical fossil fuel plants.

  • The cost of new clean energy is typically cheaper than methane gas and coal — and it has the further benefits of addressing the climate crisis and not polluting communities.
  • Money from the Inflation Reduction Act — the largest investment in clean energy ever — sweetens the pot further, something we make sure utility regulators are factoring into decisions about what power mix to approve.
  • Additionally, we advocate for distributed energy resources like rooftop solar, battery storage, and electric vehicles that can further bring down costs and increase reliability.
  • Finally, the cheapest, cleanest energy of all is the energy we do not need, which is why we push for energy efficiency measures and incentives.

Advancing energy justice: We help residents challenge rate increases and harmful fixed charges sought by utilities. Our current fossil fuel-burning power system particularly burdens low-income communities with unaffordable bills and deadly pollution.

  • We are advancing a clean energy future that doesn’t replicate the inequities of the past. We are pushing to reduce energy burdens (the percent of income spent on energy) and provide just transitions for communities whose economies were built around dirty energy.
  • In our cases, we expand and improve energy efficiency and electrification programs, with a particular focus on making sure these programs reach low-income residential customers such as people who may need home repairs before they can weatherize their home or replace gas appliances.
  • We also push for bill assistance and against power shut offs.
  • We fight efforts by utilities to stick their customers with the tab for their lobbying and marketing – especially when it’s aimed at extending fossil fuels.

Earthjustice attorney Shannon Fisk (center) at a Ohio Public Utilities Commission proceeding in 2015 to fight utility proposals that would cost customers billions of dollars while guaranteeing profits for corporate shareholders.

Earthjustice attorney Shannon Fisk (center) at a Ohio Public Utilities Commission proceeding to fight utility proposals that would cost customers billions of dollars while guaranteeing profits for corporate shareholders. (Years of Living Dangerously)

Electrifying our lives: As power generation gets cleaner and cheaper, we want everyone to be able to plug into it, removing pollution and high costs from our daily lives.

  • We are working on building electrification by ensuring utilities are incentivizing electric appliances like heat pumps and induction stoves, building on the significant incentives offered by the IRA.
  • We fight efforts by gas utilities to extend gas infrastructure to new housing developments.
  • And we also push some utilities to provide rebates or other incentives for low-income customers to purchase electric appliances and vehicles.

Creating a more resilient power system: The energy system we are building is not only clean but decentralized and resilient — local solar power during the day, energy storage at night, and programs and appliances to manage demand and reduce peak load. The energy system of the future will be less dependent on utilities and more resilient in disasters and extreme weather.

Two men lift a piece of HVAC equipment into place outside of a home.

Sonny Ashby, left, and Robby Brian, of Alaska Plumbing and Heating, install a heat pump in Juneau, Alaska. (Michael Penn for Earthjustice)

Honey May, then-program director of WV SUN, announces the launch of West Virginians For Energy Freedom outside of the Public Service Commission in Charleston, W.Va., in 2017 to .
Outside of the Public Service Commission in Charleston, W.Va., in 2017, Honey May, then-program director of WV SUN, announces the launch of a new coalition that would go on to successfully oppose FirstEnergy's plan to offload uncompetitive power plant costs onto West Virginia ratepayers. (Earthjustice Photo)

Alison Cagle is a writer at Earthjustice. She tells the stories of the earth: the systems that govern it, the ripple effects of those systems, and the people who are fighting to change them — to protect our planet and all its inhabitants.

Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.