After being appointed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to serve as Chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), Chairman Gladys M. Brown has led the Pennsylvania Commission in developing strategies to educate the public and to provide reliable utilities to the consumers of the commonwealth. Brown’s extensive utility background includes serving as counsel to the Consumer Protection Committee of the Pennsylvania Senate, where she had an impact on legislation relating to utilities and their relationship with the community. A lawyer by trade, Brown has navigated the PUC through the changing times, including cybersecurity upgrades, the expansion of broadband in rural communities, and improvements in the pipelines serving utilities such as water and natural gas.
Flagger Force: How would you describe the work that the PUC does for the community?
Gladys M. Brown: When someone asks me where I work, it is easier to explain what we do by simply stating, “We impact someone’s life, literally.” Our organization provides support for the consumers to receive fairly priced electricity, water, telephone, etc. We ensure there are safe, reliable utility services at reasonable rates—protecting the public interest. Also, we provide educational resources to consumers to make independent and informed decisions when it comes to their utility providers.
Flagger Force: What are some of the newer challenges the PUC is currently presented with that are also facing the utility space?
Gladys M. Brown: Nationally, our industry has been working through the challenge of aging infrastructure. On roadways and in neighborhoods, our utilities collaborate with other companies to replace lead water lines to provide safe drinking water—ensuring there are reliable resources for consumers. Our organization is also focusing on the lack of broadband available in the rural areas of the state. A lot of those individuals don’t have access to things that you and I utilize daily, such as Netflix or the internet in general. We need to evaluate how to provide what we consider a basic resource to these homeowners. Additionally, as Pennsylvania is a large and growing energy exporter state, there is a lot of discussion around Marcellus shale. We are encouraging our utilities to explore ways to increase consumer access to this low-cost resource. Furthermore, cybersecurity continues to be a national challenge. One of the largest threats to our utility partners is a “black sky” event where access to the electric grid would be disabled.
Flagger Force: How does the PUC collaborate with other state and federal agencies when solving these challenges? Are there any shared projects or initiatives between Pennsylvania and other states?
Gladys M. Brown: In June 2016, the PUC partnered with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, several of our utilities (urban and rural), federal agencies, and the American Red Cross to stage a mock “black sky” event. This event provided us some best practices that we could then share to our smaller or medium-sized authorities in the utility space.
Flagger Force: Utility pipelines are a major topic of discussion these days. What are the current leading focus areas for the PUC regarding pipeline infrastructure?
Gladys M. Brown: Replacing the current infrastructure is our key focus. Our commission conducts routine inspections on the design, construction, and operation of state-regulated pipelines (natural gas, hazardous liquid, etc.). The Long-Term Infrastructure Improvement Plan was created in 2012, as part of Act 11 to assist utilities in identifying pipelines and other systems that need repair or replacement. The act allows utilities to use a Distribution System Improvement Charge to recover reasonable and prudent costs incurred while repairing, improving, or replacing certain eligible distribution property that is a part of the company’s distribution system. Creating these processes and procedures ensures that utilities are identifying the locations that need service and are providing a quality service to consumers.
Flagger Force: What is something you feel many people don’t know about the PUC that would benefit from greater awareness?
Gladys M. Brown: Consumers know about the PUC’s involvement in complaints involving electric, natural gas, or water service; however, we also provide regulation on aspects of the transportation industry as well, such as the railroad industry. In fact, the modern PUC has its origins as the Pennsylvania State Railroad Commission. With over 5,600 miles of railroad across the state, along with track in Pennsylvania, along with thousands of crossing and bridges, the commission plays an important role in ensuring the safe movement of trains through our communities.
Flagger Force: What does the PUC look for in effective safety partnerships between utilities and utility partners?
Gladys M. Brown: Safety partnerships are key to getting everyone to come home safe at the end of each workday. I always say that we look for partners that put things in place so other things can continue to flow. Especially with most of their focus being around replacement of aging infrastructure, our utility partners look for partnerships that allow them to put better safety procedures in place. For instance, Commissioner John F. Coleman Jr. of the PUC has been named co-chair of the National Gas Access and Expansion Task Force and is also a member of the Pipeline Safety Committee, both of which has been established by the National Association of the Regulatory Utility Commissioners. By evaluating a partnership between our two organizations, we participate in conversations that immediately impact the safety culture of the utility work being performed daily.
Flagger Force: Name an issue that would benefit from more attention in the utility sector right now.
Gladys M. Brown: The utility sector is beginning to evaluate solutions for workforce sustainability. Many of the individuals who work for these companies are a part of the “baby boomer” generation and are retiring. It is difficult to try to replace them with all the knowledge and expertise that they have gained throughout the years. To find people who are capable to complete this very labor-intensive work and have the knowledge to do so is a challenge. Utilities must find these individuals, train them, and have them gain the experience that allows them to operate at the levels of some of these more experienced workers.
Flagger Force: What would you say are the top issues for the utility industry in the next 10 years?
Gladys M. Brown: Our industry needs to be more resilient. In the next 10 years, there will need to be a larger investment in aging infrastructure, a larger focus on innovation, and a larger emphasis on hiring staff from the upcoming generation. On a national level, these topics relate to all companies within the industry. The creation of smart meters has been a good example of preparing for the future. These meters, which are installed at the homes of consumers, provide outage reports, which are especially helpful during storm response. There also needs to be a continued focus on customer support. Trimming back trees from utility wires has been a topic of discussion for consumers. Our industry needs to contribute to vegetation management and make plans for these services with the help of the community. Overall, our industry is working with partners on a national level through associations and conferences to discuss strategies for solving these issues to continue providing a quality service to consumers.