Update, Monday, Sept. 13, 2022: Departing Arkansas Public Service Commission Chairman Ted Thomas has been contemplating a private sector job for some time, he told Arkansas Business in a more extensive conversation Monday in wake of the weekend’s news of his resignation.
“I have been pondering this for a while and also trying to wait out something that would make me want to jump to it,” Thomas said of his job plans after Oct. 1, when his resignation takes effect. He said his new role, based in Little Rock or elsewhere, will require plenty of travel.
After eight years as PSC chairman, Thomas said “It’s a possibility” he might be a surprise selection for an upcoming vacancy on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a post his credentials as a lawyer, former lawmaker and regulator might suit well. Recently, he’s become an emerging voice nationally on renewable power interconnection and other grid concerns.
Lobbying and politics do not beckon, he said. Consulting is a possibility, of course, but all Thomas would say was that he’s mindful of his “obligation not to talk about employment with entities involved with matters I’ve participated in in public life.”
In a statement issued Monday to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Thomas said years of struggling with utilities over renewable power adoption had worn him down. He sees solar energy development as a key hedge against price volatility in natural gas, which has surpassed coal as a fuel for generating electricity.
“I am frustrated by the impact that high natural gas prices are having on both electric and natural gas bills,” the statement, which Thomas confirmed to Arkansas Business, said. “It is going to be bad this winter when the first bills come out after the home heating season begins.”
A political science graduate of the University of Arkansas and a 1988 graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law, Thomas is 57. His salary as PSC chair is $154,000.
Arkansas Public Service Commission Chairman Ted Thomas has resigned after eight years atop the utility regulatory agency, and he’s poised to work in the private sector, he confirmed to Arkansas Business over the weekend.
His letter of resignation is in the hands of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who appointed him to the three-member panel. The resignation is effective Oct. 1, he said. The news of Thomas’ resignation, which was first reported by Debra Hale-Shelton of Arkansas Times, came immediately on the heels of a fierce notice of recusal from a solar interconnection case before the commission.
In that case, he vividly accused one of the state’s electric distribution cooperatives of “wielding the billy club of the monopolist” in preventing rooftop solar from connecting to its grid.
But Thomas said his resignation was unrelated to the recusal.
“It is completely voluntary,” he said, making clear that neither the governor or any official had pressured him.
“I have a little more than 4 years on my remaining term,” he said, adding that he couldn’t yet specify what private-sector opportunities lay ahead.
The resignation ends a regulatory era of unparalleled solar power adoption in Arkansas, and Thomas was one architect of a regulatory ruling that spurred renewal power development projects by setting credits for net metered power placed on the grid at the same rate that utilities charge residences for electricity.
This helps solar arrays pay off more quickly, but Thomas’ determination to promote renewable energy under the Arkansas Renewable Energy Development Act of 2001 and the Solar Access Act of 2019 have not endeared him to the utilities.
The common utility complaint is that the PSC does not take into account that giving a retail-matching rate for net-metered power shifts infrastructure costs unfairly to customers without solar power. But Thomas pointed out that no utility has sought to document this cost shift in any rate filings seeking to recover those costs.
While solar power made up just a tenth of the power generated in Arkansas in 2021, that was still more than 15 times the amount Arkansas generated in 2018, when Thomas joined the commission.
Cerebral and reserved in manner but surprisingly passionate in some public pronouncements, Thomas is a lawyer by training and a Republican former state lawmaker. Standing 6-foot-8, he has recently made a reputation for bluntness in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proceedings. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett suggested on Sunday that Thomas — a Republican who supports the kind of renewable power on President Joe Biden’s agenda — might even be in line for a coming GOP-designated FERC position.
Thomas wouldn’t speak to that possibility, and a federal appointment doesn’t fit the private sector commitment. John Bethel, a former PSC executive director, left the commission in 2018 to become director of public affairs for Entergy, the state’s largest electric utility.
Thomas could of course practice law, and he’s known to be admired by executives like Katie Niebaum, president of Delta Solar, and CEO Bill Halter of Scenic Hill Solar. Both companies are based in Little Rock.
“I am grateful for the opportunities I have had in public service as a legislator, PSC staffer, prosecuting attorney and chairman of the PSC,” Thomas told Arkansas Business. “The time is right for a new challenge.”
Thomas, who said his job change was in motion before his recusal took Petit Jean Electric Cooperative to task for what he saw as underhanded maneuvers to remove him from the net-metering case that yielded the long-anticipated net-metering ruling in June 2020.
Legal limits will prevent Thomas from being a lobbyist for at least a year, and he won’t be allowed any involvement as a private employee in areas he regulated as a commissioner. Another restriction restricts active commissioners from commenting on any new employer if they regulate that future employer.
In last week’s recusal, Thomas accused Petit Jean Electric of making false criminal accusations against him and setting interconnection rules that have prevented members from plugging in their solar arrays in some cases for over a year.
Thomas repeatedly brought up Samuel and Belinda Lister of Fairfield Bay, whose solar interconnection has been delayed and were featured in a front-page Arkansas Business article in March.
He then accused Petit Jean of employing “Better Call Saul!” legal tactics, a reference to the “Breaking Bad” TV spinoff on AMC. He cited as legal “garbage” claims from a 2020 effort to remove him from the major net-metering docket.
“Like a Saul Goodman stunt, Petit Jean’s counsel falsely accused me of criminal conduct and sought my recusal,” Thomas wrote. “‘Better Call Saul!’ Members like Belinda and Samuel Lister got billed for that garbage too.”
On March 3 of this year, Thomas spoke to lawmakers on the global energy crisis and chastised foot-dragging on solar interconnections, including the imposition of insurance and inspection requirements and sometimes high application fees.
The cooperatives denied stonewalling, arguing that solar systems and net metering present novel challenges, and that adding too much solar capacity too fast can overwhelm planning. As member-owned cooperatives, they have no profit motive, they pointed out.