Guest Interview with Christine Wright - Public Utilities Commission of Texas

   Disclaimer: These opinions are my own and do not represent an official staff
  opinion or Commission decision.

   How long have you worked at the Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT)?
   It will be 8 years this March.

   What is your role at PUCT?
   I’m currently placed in the Infrastructure & Reliability Division. I provide both policy and technical support for wholesale and retail market activities at the PUC. Since joining the PUCT, I’ve been responsible for working on a whole host of issues like pricing, regulated rate and tariff matters, market design, the interrelationship between market components (generation/resource, retail, and wires), and the day-to-day operation of the Texas retail electric market.

How long have you been involved in demand side activities?
For about 11 years. 

What challenges have you faced as a professional working on DR and smart grid within your organization and within the industry?
We have a robust retail competitive market in ERCOT, and so the challenges are slightly different. For us, achieving real DR requires the coordination of a fully regulated wires component with a non-regulated Retail Electric Provider (REP). The REP has the relationship with the customer, while the wires component has very little interaction with customers. Both entities need to make investments for DR to work. We don’t regulate the investment that the REP makes, and so our role is merely to help enable the market to take advantage of smart grid to implement DR. The PUC enables DR but doesn’t mandate it.  

What are the special challenges for regulators when it comes to dealing with new areas like demand response and smart grid?
Regulators need legislative support to carry policies through and provide necessary cost recovery. I think that trying to fit the smart grid into the traditional regulatory paradigm is like putting a square peg into a round hole. The way we look at policy, and cost recovery in particular, needs to change. SG is being developed and built gradually. Market benefits don’t emerge overnight – they take time. This is an extremely “tough sell” to customers that are being asked to fund this investment.  

What changes have you seen in the industry as it relates to DR and traditional energy efficiency over the last few years?
I think these issues are more front and center than before, and I’ve noticed more examples showing the progression from pilot to production. There is a greater effort toward bringing interoperability in technology. Also, the emphasis on resource adequacy requires that the DR conversation be explored in a myriad of directions.

From your vantage point, what has surprised you in terms of how DR and smart grid have developed over the years as business and policy areas?
Here in ERCOT, the smart grid has really transformed how the utilities (wires component) operate. It has enabled new products and services and more efficient market operations. There is more discussion on the wholesale impacts from smart grid as well. On the other hand, it is still frustrating to see the lack of speed at which new programs and offerings are being adopted. 

What do you expect to be the biggest challenge with expanding and implementing DR in the next decade?
The main challenge will be to keep up with the pace of change in technology. This will mean rethinking the approach to approval and to cost recovery.  I don’t view this as a traditional investment. For DR and SG to really take shape, the regulatory paradigm and the traditional utility mindset will need to be updated. You simply cannot continue to operate things the way you have in the past. Also I think the messaging the industry provides to the customer has a long way to go. These are customers, not “ratepayers.”

What advice or guidance would you give to young professionals who are considering a career in demand response and smart grid?
I would say to be as forward thinking as possible. The AMI rule that the PUC adopted in 2007 comes to mind, as at the time we had a lot of people telling us to adopt the rule for the technology that was currently available. We did not do that, and instead wrote policies and technical requirements for what was needed – and I think that should be used as much as possible. Don’t write the policies for what simply is on the shelf today, but rather think about what customers need and then let the industry respond.

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