Utility panel vacancies at hand

Two regulators are poised to resign from the N.C. Utilities Commission, creating a void at the agency as it faces key decisions on new nuclear power plants, solar energy and conservation programs.

In an era of soaring energy costs, many decisions facing the commission involve increases in utility costs for state residents.

The two vacancies are likely to spur behind-the-scenes lobbying as competing interests – power companies, telecommunications firms, environmentalist organizations, consumer advocates and others – broker for influence on the seven-member commission.

Commissioners, with an annual base salary of $123,198, usually are lawyers with political connections. But two current members are non-lawyers with backgrounds in business and politics.

“It's akin to being a judge,” said Edward Finley Jr., chairman of the commission. “There's never a problem finding someone willing to fill these positions.”

Commissioner James Yancey Kerr II said this week he will join the McGuireWoods law firm and direct the firm's energy policy practice group. Kerr, 44, was appointed to the utilities commission seven years ago.

Commissioner Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV is campaigning for a seat on the N.C. Court of Appeals in the Nov. 4 election. Ervin, 52, has been a utilities commissioner nine years and will remain on the commission if he loses the election.

The two commissioners are considered experts on energy at a time in which the commission is undertaking the most significant and costly decisions in several decades.

The commission last year dealt a major setback to Duke Energy's bid to build two coal-burning power plants west of Charlotte, approving just one of the units.

The commission is considering a Duke conservation proposal that critics say would overcharge customers and enrich shareholders.

In addition, Progress Energy will face tough scrutiny on multibillion-dollar plans to add new reactors at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in Wake County.

“We're making decisions in the electricity area of a magnitude that we haven't made in my time here,” Ervin said. “It shows no sign of abating.”

Kerr was recently president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and testified numerous times before Congress and federal energy regulators.

Ervin headed the regulatory trade association's committees on electric power and nuclear waste issues.