Arkansas Public Service Commission chair resigns, rips energy providers

Letter faults sluggishness on solar deployment amid high natural gas prices

Ted Thomas, Public Service Commission chairman, is shown at the state Capitol in Little Rock in this Nov. 21, 2016 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)
Ted Thomas, Public Service Commission chairman, is shown at the state Capitol in Little Rock in this Nov. 21, 2016 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Public Service Commission Chairman Ted Thomas is resigning his position, saying Monday that he is leaving the state's chief utility regulatory agency in part out of frustration with sluggish efforts by energy providers to act on key policy issues related to solar deployment and natural gas prices.

Inactivity in addressing spiraling gas prices could lead to higher monthly bills for consumers this winter, Thomas said in a statement Monday. "I am frustrated by the impact that high natural gas prices are having on both electric and natural gas bills," Thomas said. "It is going to be bad this winter when the first bills come out after the home heating season begins."

Thomas, who has four years remaining in his term, will leave the commission effective Oct. 1. According to the state, Thomas' annual salary as PSC chair is $154,345.

As chairman, Thomas said he has been focused on giving Arkansans more energy alternatives -- including solar -- to "mitigate the risk posed by high natural gas prices." Those efforts began, he said, when natural gas prices were at historic lows "because when prices are high it is too late."

Action should have been taken sooner to diminish the threat of high consumer bills, he said. "There are many things that should already be done that are not done due to the complexity and contentious nature of these policy issues," Thomas said. "This frustration is a factor in my departure."

The PSC chairman has quarreled with the state's top electricity providers over issues related to solar-energy policy. Solar deployment has been a contentious issue in Arkansas for years as utilities and solar installers and users have battled over how to compensate homeowners and businesses for excess power generated by solar facilities. The commission generally has ruled in favor of consumers, not utilities.

Squabbles over solar deployment involving Petit Jean Electric Cooperative of Clinton led Thomas last week to recuse himself from the docket after the utility charged the chairman with bias. Thomas rejected the accusations and issued a scornful recusal saying the company was not cooperating to connect solar customers to the grid and instead was "wielding the billy club of the monopolist."

The recusal, Thomas said, was unrelated to his departure from the commission. "I was not asked to resign, it was not suggested that I resign and I was not pressured to resign directly or indirectly by any person whatsoever," he said, adding that he has a strong relationship with the governor and legislators.

Thomas also had a biting comment directed at Petit Jean Electric Cooperative. "My decision is not in any way related to the recusal or the previous attempted recusal," he said, adding that the company advocated two bills last legislative session that were opposed by Thomas and gained no legislative traction. "They only wish they had the power to run me off," he said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who would appoint Thomas' successor, said Monday he did not ask the chairman to resign and gave no indication of his plans for a replacement.

"Ted Thomas has been a national leader as chairman of the Public Service Commission," the governor said in a statement. "In a time when the energy sector is undergoing change, Ted has continually worked with diligence for the people of Arkansas during a critical time. I appreciate his willingness to serve the people of the Natural State, and I wish him well in his future endeavors."

The three-member commission regulates the intrastate rates and services of public utilities that provide electricity, natural gas, water, telephone and pipeline-safety services in Arkansas.

Thomas, of Conway, was appointed chairman by Hutchinson in January 2015 and has a career of public service. He has served as chief deputy prosecuting attorney for the 20th Judicial District, administrative law judge at the Public Service Commission, Budget Director for Gov. Mike Huckabee and in the Arkansas House of Representatives.

"I am deeply grateful to the citizens of Arkansas for having had the opportunity to be in public service for nearly three decades as a legislator, PSC staffer, prosecuting attorney and as chairman of the PSC," Thomas said in Monday's statement "The time is right for a new challenge."

Thomas did not give specifics but indicated his next move will be to the private sector and will not involve any entity that has been regulated by the commission.

Upcoming Events