Our Office of Consumer Services, Watching out for the Small Utility Customer

October 21, 2021

Have you ever heard news reports of utility rate changes or discovered new charges on your utility bill and wondered who was looking out for you, the small utility customer? The good news is that the Office of Consumer Services is established in Utah law to do just that: to advocate on behalf of residential and small commercial customers of Utah’s public utilities. It is important to note that the role of the OCS is not to address individual complaints regarding utilities, but rather to represent these customer classes as a whole to promote rates and terms of service that are fair for everyone.

When certain public utilities (OCS only has authority to represent customers of Rocky Mountain Power, Dominion Energy, and regulated telecom providers) files a request before the Public Service Commission to change their rates or terms of service, the OCS conducts a thorough review of their filing. Its staff has backgrounds in technical subjects such as accounting, economics, and finance and dig into the workpapers and supporting evidence from the utilities to make sure costs are justified and meet the requirements of state law, specifically evaluating whether the portion of costs assigned to residential and small commercial customers is fair. Many large utility customers have their own representation in these cases and the OCS fills an important role focusing solely on the smaller customers.

The OCS is assisted in its work by an advisory board, the Committee of Consumer Services. This is a five-member layperson board with individuals who have the following qualifications:

1) a residential customer,

2) a retired person,

3) an agriculture irrigation customer,

4) expertise regarding small commercial utility customers, and

5) expertise regarding low income customers.

Together the OCS and its advisory board have articulated Policy Objectives to guide the work of the OCS. These objectives include best practices in utility regulation and consumer advocacy and are consistent with the State of Utah energy and telecommunications policies. Some of the concepts include: supporting public and transparent regulatory processes that promote broad participation, pursuing policy changes in a manner that minimize costs and maximize benefits over the long run, promoting appropriate consumer protections including data privacy, and evaluating new electric generating resources on a fuel-neutral basis considering all costs, risks, and benefits.

Given the large volume of utility initiatives and the small staff of the OCS, it must prioritize the cases it works on by focusing on the cases likely to have the greatest impact on residential and small commercial customers from either a financial or policy perspective. The OCS also leverages its participation in utility cases with a small amount of authorized funding for the use of expert consultants to cover as many issues as possible. In any given year these utility cases include a wide array of topics, such as: electric and natural gas utility long-term resource planning; proposals for voluntary rates that create access to higher percentages of renewable energy or carbon offsets; utility requests to raise rates for a subset or all customers; requests to construct new resources such as transmission lines or generating resources; and participation in state and regional processes that oversee electric grid reliability, markets, or related initiatives.

While some of these individual topics may seem abstract, they directly impact each and every resident and small business, their monthly budgets, and access to basic necessities. The OCS understands the vital role that energy and telecommunications play for Utah’s families and businesses and is unwavering in its commitment to represent these public utility customers.