State Regulators Examine Utility Secrecy

08/16/11 7:34AM By John Dillon
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(Host) State regulators are taking a closer look at what kinds of information utilities should be allowed to keep secret.

In recent years, power companies have opted not to reveal the price they've agreed to pay under certain power contracts. And the Public Service Board is asking whether this kind of secrecy is always justified.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Public Service Board is often involved in a balancing act. And the balance here is between the public's right to know what power companies pay for electricity, and the utilities' right to protect commercially sensitive information.

The board opened a workshop into the confidentiality question after utilities asked to keep pricing and other terms secret in recent power deals. The public does not know, for example, how the price of a large power deal with Hydro-Quebec will change over time.

Donald Kreis is a professor at Vermont Law school and former general counsel for the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. He says the board is asking the right questions about confidentiality agreements.

(Kreis) "It's the agency's job to demonstrate that the documents are not disclosable for some reason. And if it chooses to believe what a utility represents to the agency about the harms that disclosure would trigger, then the agency, I think, is obliged to conduct a pretty rigorous inquiry about that. And I think that's the kind of issue the board is trying to explore with its workshop."

(Dillon) Not only is price information frequently kept confidential, in some cases the secrecy even extends to the source of the electricity itself. Central Vermont Public Service Corporation recently agreed to short-term power deals to replace what it now gets from Vermont Yankee. But the company did not disclose who's selling the electricity, or whether it comes from coal, nuclear or other sources.

CVPS spokesman Steve Costello says the utility revealed more than it had to, including the price it will pay for the power. But he said the identity of the sellers has to be confidential.

(Costello) "And the reason for that is that these winners were selected in a Web-based auction process. And we don't want the people who participate in those processes to know who's winning each time, because that can be a very important piece of information for them."

(Dillon) Donald Kreis says the utility's explanation seems to make sense.

(Kreis) "I'm left at accepting at face value the contention that if they disclosed everything now that would have a negative effect on their next power procurement process. My concern about that argument is that I think it's an unproven hypothesis and utility regulators tend to accept that argument at face value rather than explore it."

(Dillon) Regulators are also looking at putting a time limit on how long information can be kept confidential. John Beling is with the Department of Public Service, the state agency that represents consumers in utility issues.

(Beling) "What we have said is that three years in most cases is probably sufficient or adequate but we would want an opportunity to challenge it in certain situations where perhaps three years is not reasonable. It's too long."

(Dillon) And the public won't have to wait that long to find out where CVPS is buying electricity to replace Vermont Yankee. The utility said the information will be released in a quarterly report the company must file with federal regulators.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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