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Tools for Engagement: How to Bring your Regulatory Initiative to the Next Level

Later this summer, the District of Columbia Public Service Commission (DCPSC) will issue decisions on upcoming grid modernization activities for the district. Those decisions – the Commission’s output – will be based on input from hundreds of interested stakeholders who participated in a 10-month long working group initiative that was part of the DCPSC’s Modernizing the Energy Delivery System for Increased Sustainability, or MEDSIS.

A commission or utility wishing to gather stakeholder viewpoints could learn valuable lessons from the MEDSIS process. Foremost, the program enjoyed a surprisingly large stakeholder engagement. More than 240 industry professionals participated, with each of the six working groups averaging more than 100 attendees to the working group meetings each month. Nearly one in five working-group members, 19 percent, participated in all six working groups, and 80 percent participated in more than one working group.

How did DCPSC achieve this great participation and manage to keep people engaged? Here is a quick summary of key findings shared recently during a webinar hosted by the National Association of Utility Commissioners (NARUC). SEPA’s Chief Innovation Officer, Sharon Allan, was the first speaker and was followed by Exelon’s Director of Utility Initiatives, Susan Mora, and DCPSC’s Naza Shelley, Advisory Attorney in the Commission’s Office of the General Counsel.

Know where you’re headed

“One thing the Commission staff did that was extremely helpful is they had a concrete vision statement to guide our efforts,” Allan told webinar attendees. That statement outlined seven guiding principles developed by the Commission to guide its grid modernization plans. Modernization efforts had to be sustainable, well-planned, safe & reliable, secure, affordable, interactive, and non-discriminatory. As facilitators of the stakeholder engagement process, the SEPA team developed and led six working groups guided by these principles and also worked to align each working group’s recommendations with the Commission’s MEDSIS Vision.

Spread the word

SEPA invited industry professionals to join the proceedings using its database of more than 50,000 industry contacts. DCPSC posted MEDSIS information on the Commission website and used social media to spread the word within the community. The result of this outreach was the convening of a diverse group of participants, including 40 utility representatives, 54 solution providers, 21 consumer advocates, 12 environmental group representatives, university scholars, legal experts, as well as individuals from government, the power industry, non-profits and more.

Stakeholders at the MEDSIS April Joint Working Group Meeting collaborating on draft recommendations. (Credit: Black Robin Media)
Take your time

DCPSC scheduled stakeholder working group meetings once per month over a 10-month period. None of the 50 meetings were held concurrently to ensure stakeholders could participate in multiple working groups.

Be transparent

As noted earlier, on average there were more than 100 attendees each month participating in person or remotely. Those joining remotely were able to view the meetings through online video conferencing. SEPA staffed each meeting with four people: one to facilitate, one to assist and two to take notes. The notes documented stakeholder position statements as well as key findings and action items from the discussion. Audio from the working group meetings was also recorded. The SEPA team gathered meeting minutes, recordings, email correspondence, and work products in a repository available to anyone who had registered at www.dcgridmod.com.

Listen

As the local electric utility, Exelon’s Pepco attended meetings for all six working groups. “We used the opportunity to listen and understand people’s perspectives in a non-litigious type of setting,” Mora said. “It’s a big commitment of time, but the fact that you didn’t have that overlay of a litigious situation allowed for more honest brokerage between people.”

SEPA’s Principal Consultant, Robert Tucker, facilitating a MEDSIS working group discussion regarding finalizing the recommendations. (Credit: Black Robin Media)
Join in

DCPSC chose not to have staff attorneys participate in the working groups since the advisory staff in DC also serves as the litigation staff and many of the topics touched active dockets. In hindsight, Shelley suggests commissions without the same constraints and with sufficient staff to cover such meetings should have staff actively participate. “Staff can be active participants, helping to guide stakeholders,” she said. “It’s going to be instrumental for your initiative to make sure that outcomes of the process are concrete, actionable recommendations that the Commission can decide upon and move the process forward.”

Use strawman proposals

“It’s a lot easier for people to talk about something than to talk about nothing,” Exelon’s Susan Mora said in the NARUC webinar. That’s why Exelon presented a strawman proposal to the participants in the working group focused on non-wires alternatives to grid investments. The Commission’s Naza Shelley agrees with the wisdom of this approach and told webinar participants, “To move the process along, it’s better to have tangible strawman proposals for each of your working groups. The groups need a jumping off point, something to make suggestions concrete.”

Avoid PowerPoint perdition

Most working group meetings were not designed to be a long series of presentations, one following the next. The SEPA team conducted surveys and ran exercises to encourage information exchange. For the data working group, SEPA staff invited group participants to identify the system level data they would like to access. Then, the SEPA team put all responses into a grid and mapped those requests against data Pepco indicated they already provide, could provide, or can’t provide due to legal or technical reasons. “It turned out a lot of the information was available, and many of the stakeholders just didn’t know,” Allan told her webinar audience.

The MEDSIS Stakeholder Working Group Report was submitted to the Commission on May 31st, 2019 and includes 32 actionable recommendations for the DCPSC to advance grid modernization in the District of Columbia. View the full report here.

Listen to the full NARUC webinar to hear additional lessons about stakeholder engagement. It is available for free online.

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