What is the Department of Public Utilities (DPU)?
The stated mission of the DPU is “to ensure that consumer rights are protected, and that utility companies are providing the most reliable service at the lowest possible cost”. The DPU acts as the state’s regulator to ensure the public is not subject to unjust rates, terms, and conditions.
Though nominally the Department of “Public” Utilities, they mainly oversee investor-owned gas, water and electric utilities. Oversight of publicly owned municipal utilities is limited. Gas and electric utilities function as regulated monopolies in Massachusetts, meaning they can be the sole provider of utility services in a given geographic area and are guaranteed a minimum return on investment. Traditionally, the DPU has allowed the utilities to set their own rates without much pushback, has acted as a rubber-stamp for new fossil fuel energy infrastructure, and has even allowed for ratepayer reimbursement for membership in industry organizations that lobby against expansion of clean energy and in favor of fossil fuels.
What does the DPU do?
The DPU has several divisions that provide oversight of utilities, represent consumer interests, repair energy infrastructure and supervise the safety of transit. Some primary responsibilities are listed below.
Oversee utilities, including:
- utility rate changes and “cost-adjustments,”
- siting of electrical transmission lines,
- utility efficiency and emissions reduction measures,
- approval of gas utilities’ five-year forecasts and long-term gas contracts,
- approval of municipal aggregation plans (a process through which a town or city can purchase electricity in bulk on behalf of their residents and businesses),
- approval of arrearage management (financial assistance programs developed by utilities), and
- repairing gas leaks.
The Gas System Enhancement Program was created in 2014 to invest in repairing aging and leaking gas infrastructure. The DPU has extended the timeline for this project until 2039 – at which point we should be well on the way toward a transition away from gas heating – and is on track to spend up to a total of $40 billion without clear evidence of reduced leaks or emissions. You can learn more about the failures of the gas pipeline repair in this report by Gas Transition Allies.
Provide consumer protection by:
- enforcing billing and utility shutoff regulation,
- investigating consumer complaints, and
- protecting ratepayers’ rights.
The stated objective of the Department to protect the rights of ratepayers is not always aligned with its actions. However, advocacy from groups like the Acadia Center has influenced the DPU to alter some utility company proposals, such as automatic rate hikes and high rates of return on investment, in favor of ratepayers
Supervise the safety of:
- MBTA rail transit,
- gas pipelines,
- moving and towing companies, and
- rideshare companies.
As many Boston-area residents know, the MBTA has dealt with many serious incidents in the past few years, leading to prolonged shutdowns. Learn about how the MBTA neglected serious safety concerns at the MBTA at this link.
The Department of Public Utilities provides administrative support for the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), which oversees siting of other energy infrastructure such as gas and oil pipelines, large power plants, and natural gas storage infrastructure. The EFSB is located within the DPU but is not overseen by the DPU.
Who are the DPU members?
The DPU is run by the Commonwealth Utilities Commission, who oversee the department. The Commission is appointed by the Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, with approval by the Governor. Two of the three commissioners will be appointed by the incoming Healey administration.
The DPU is often run by former utility employees or lawyers who have worked for utility companies, which raises the question of possible conflicts of interest when it comes to weighing the public good vs. the good of the investor-owned utilities. Matthew Nelson, for example, is a former supervisor at Eversource.
The EFSB has nine members, chaired by the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Other members include two of the three members of the DPU Commission, the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources. The EFSB must decide if proposed facilities are necessary, and meet criteria stipulated by our state’s environmental justice and environmental protection laws.
How do you find info on DPU filings/cases?
Many DPU proceedings appear as dockets in the DPU file room. Filings in the dockets will include initial proposals, usually initiated by the utility companies, information requests related to the proposals from the DPU and other stakeholders/parties, responses from the utilities, announcements of upcoming hearings, and criteria for participation in said hearings.
The DPU publishes announcements of its hearings for siting decisions and rate changes. Individuals can provide public comment in person at these hearings or in writing. A list of all upcoming hearings with docket numbers and descriptions and relevant zoom links can be found at https://eeaonline.eea.state.ma.us/DPU/Fileroom/Hearings/ByDate. To view more details about each docket and relevant filings, you can type the docket number at this link: https://eeaonline.eea.state.ma.us/DPU/Fileroom/dockets/bynumber.
How can we push back on the DPU, as members of the public?
DPU hearings are similar to court cases. Participants present evidence supporting or opposing the proposals being heard, and there may be formal questioning. There are several roles the public can take in these hearings.
Intervenors in the proceedings can provide witnesses at hearings. They are able to submit their own information requests to other participating parties, and file briefs. They can cross-examine witnesses at hearings. They are also able to appeal the Department’s decisions. Intervenors are often represented by attorneys. In order to participate in a DPU proceeding as a formal intervenor, one must provide a petition for leave to intervene and be approved by the department. Formal intervenors are usually restricted to those who are “substantially and specifically affected” by the results of the proceeding.
Limited participants can file briefs and receive copies of other filings in the docket, but they cannot submit information requests, provide witnesses, or cross-examine witnesses.
Limited participants are approved at the discretion of the DPU, and there is generally no restriction (other than time limitation) on providing public comments at hearings. The DPU and other parties involved in the docket have no responsibility to respond to written or verbal comments from the public, but they may take them into consideration when issuing a decision.
Whether we are participating as intervenors, limited participants, or most likely, members of the public, we should review and analyze the documents filed in the DPU docket to see where we can push back on industry statements that the DPU accepts as facts. In the past, for example, intervenors have contradicted statements by gas utilities about future gas projections, pointing out that contractors hired by the gas companies will always project growth in gas usage, even if that has not been the case in recent years.
Grassroots organizations have at times organized to “pack the hearings” with members of the general public who are affected by the changes in question and can give powerful personal statements as public comments. These efforts have succeeded at least in delaying decisions, sometimes by years, as the DPU adds time for further deliberations and more hearings. Delays can give organizations extra time to plan rallies, gain supporters, write letters to the editor, and influence public opinion on the issue.
Another way to influence the DPU is to ask our own elected representatives to make public comments at hearings, and take careful note of statements made by other public figures at the DPU hearings and within the DPU filings. We can use our opinion of their statements to inform future communications with these public figures, thanking them for favorable statements, and asking questions or pushing back on statements with which we do not agree. For better or worse, the DPU gives special privilege to elected officials, allowing them to be first in line to make public comments, and often giving them extra time to speak.
There are other long-term strategies we the public could use to change the operation of the DPU. We could use this opportunity to pressure the new governor to appoint commissioners who will be open to change, prioritize environmental justice, and advocate on behalf of the ratepayer. We could also work with state legislators to introduce a bill that would facilitate the democratization of utility operations and decision making, and organize to gain other legislators’ support. These efforts would likely require a large statewide coalition of organizations working together to achieve success.
One of our ultimate goals is to change the system so that the Department of Public Utilities works for the benefit of the public rather than the utility executives. Until that day comes, we must continue to find ways to put pressure on the DPU to work toward a democratized, decarbonized energy grid for Massachusetts.