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After 30 years, a new advocate for utility customers

By Bruce Henderson
bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

The state agency that stands up for utility customers, the Public Staff of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, has its first new executive director in 30 years. Christopher Ayers was appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory and began a six-year term on July 1, supervising a staff of about 80 people. He succeeds longtime director Robert Gruber, who retired.

Ayers, 35, is a Rutherford County native who attended Duke University and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill’s law school. He clerked for state Court of Appeals Judge Linda McGee for a year, then went to work in Raleigh for the law firm Hunton & Williams. He had been a partner at Poyner Spruill in Raleigh since 2009, focusing on utilities but also working in environmental and general regulatory law.

Ayers recused himself from Duke Energy Carolinas’ rate case, heard by the commission this week, because he had served as the attorney general’s trial counsel in Duke’s 2011-12 case. But he talked about his new job during a break in the hearing; his comments are edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What led you to this job?

A: I did not seek this job out, it found me. I was approached several times by the administration when they were looking to fill the position and we talked. I have expertise that I can bring to the position and I have a history of working with the Public Staff for 10 years. Virtually everything utilities do have to come through the commission and the Public Staff, and I felt like I knew a good number of folks on the staff and know they’re a good group of people.

Q: Did you have political connections to McCrory?

A: I’m a Republican and I’ve been a volunteer for many years on the local level here in Wake County.

Q: What’s the Public Staff’s role?

A: The Public Staff represents all customers in all utility matters that come before the Utilities Commission. You’ve got millions of customers in North Carolina and when there’s a rate case, an acquisition or other regulatory matters before the commission, those customers can’t get together to hire their own accountants, lawyers and people to represent them. That’s what we do.

We investigate the utilities, we audit and make sure, for example in the rate cases, that the appropriate adjustments are made – that things are not allocated, capitalized or expensed that shouldn’t be charged to ratepayers. We’re sort of the first level of review, then we put our position together and present it to the commission. It’s the commission’s decision whether our positions are accepted or not.

Q: The attorney general also has a consumer advocacy role. How are the two different?

A: The Public Staff is dedicated to representing consumers in utility matters. The attorney general’s office has the option, if they have a different view on issues in the case or want to take a different angle, to insert themselves in the process.

Q: Do you expect to make changes at the Public Staff?

A: I don’t foresee any significant changes. Robert Gruber, over 30 years, did an excellent job and was highly regarded by his staff, the commission and by industry.

Q: After a string of rate cases, what can utility customers expect in the future?

A: Duke Carolinas has said they were going to have a series of three rate cases, and I don’t think they’ve projected anything beyond that. I haven’t heard anything about Duke Energy Progress. But generally speaking, as utilities have to do more capital improvements, be it because an increased customer base requires more load or because of stricter environmental standards or renewable energy requirements … utilities are eventually going to include those in rate base and recover those from their customer base. When you see a utility building, I think you can expect a rate case at some point in the future. One of our roles is to make sure what the company is building is reasonable and appropriate – “prudent” is the term of art.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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