Petit Jean Electric Calls for Recusal of Ted Thomas

You’ve probably heard about a big ruling expected soon from the Arkansas Public Service Commission on how much compensation customers with their own solar panels should receive for the excess power they put onto the electric grid.

But you probably didn’t know that process has been challenged by an unusual dustup between Petit Jean Electric Cooperative Corp. and Ted Thomas, chairman of the PSC.

Petit Jean Electric made a formal request March 12 seeking to disqualify Thomas from three cases, or dockets, involving renewable power, including the big one on the fate of net metering, the process by which solar customers get their credits.

This is Docket 16-027-R, which has been grinding toward a rate ruling for four years, with thousands of pages of testimony and filings on what net metering customers should pay. Under current rules, they get a 1-1 rate equal to the price retail customers pay for power, about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Utilities argue they routinely buy power at less than half that cost, and that solar customers shirk their share of infrastructure costs by getting the full retail rate.

Petit Jean Electric had angered Thomas by defying PSC orders to put only uncontested provisions into its rate proposal, since many particulars would not be resolved until a net metering ruling. Petit Jean repeatedly included “two-channel billing” in its proposals on rates, known as tariffs in the utility industry. Two-channel billing, which would charge solar customers one rate for the retail power they consume and a lesser rate for their power going onto the grid, is certainly not an uncontested or noncontroversial proposal.

Intimidating Phone Call?

Petit Jean’s argument for Thomas’ recusal accuses him of intimidation in a Jan. 17 telephone call to a consultancy representing Petit Jean Electric, Toth & Associates of Springfield, Missouri. In that call, according to a filing by attorney John Keeling Baker of Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodward, Thomas intimidated Adam Toth, executive president of the consultancy, in forcefully demanding that Toth and an employee persuade the electric co-op to abide by PSC directives.

“I felt threatened by the words of Mr. Thomas in our phone call,” Toth said in a March 12 affidavit filed with the motion for Thomas’ recusal. “... I believed and felt that Mr. Thomas was threatening the business of Toth in Arkansas if [consultant] Craig Woycheese’s testimony filed in support of PJECC was not withheld or changed by a new replacement filing.”

In his response, Thomas said he was “communicating the urgency required” in addressing PJECC’s continued defiance of regulators, and that he merely asked if Toth “was aware that his employee, Mr. Woycheese, appeared to be recommending that his client … defy Commission orders.”

It was not a threat, Thomas said, denying Toth’s accusation that he’d threatened to halt Toth & Associates from testifying before the commission in the future. He said Toth told him that Woycheese was acting at his client’s directive.

“Mr. Toth claims that I told him that if his firm appeared before the Commission I would disqualify that person from testifying,” Thomas’ filing says. “This is categorically false.”

Thomas respectfully declined to recuse himself. One industry insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the matter could end up in court. “I wonder if this particular co-op has gone rogue.” Thomas said a net metering ruling is still expected “shortly.”