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One of the most important decision-makers in the cost of your energy bills and the fate of D.C.’s climate change action is a tiny governmental body that packs a lot of power: the D.C. Public Service Commission. Made up of three commissioners appointed by the mayor, this agency regulates Pepco, Washington Gas and Verizon (which provides landline service in the District). Recently, the DCPSC has come under fire from local climate activists for approving a multibillion-dollar project by Washington Gas to replace pipe infrastructure, despite the city’s commitments to move away from fossil fuels.
Commissioner Ted Trabue joined the DCPSC in December of last year. Before this role, he spent more than a decade as the first Managing Director of the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility. After getting a law degree at Howard University, Trabue worked in both local government and the private sector on job creation and energy policy. The father of two and fourth-generation Washingtonian spoke to the Informer about his background and priorities at the Public Service Commission.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kayla Benjamin: Tell me a little bit about your family — did you grow up in D.C.?
Ted Trabue: My father came here in the late ‘40s, as a product of a racist regime in Alabama that would not allow him to go to college in the state of Alabama. So Governor Wallace basically was like ‘we’ll sponsor you to get out of here.’ So my father came up here to go to Howard University for undergrad. My mom grew up here, in a house that’s basically on the corner of First and V, in Northwest. She was basically born and lived there until she went to Howard University as well. That’s where she and my dad met during their years of undergrad.
Prior to Dr. King’s assassination, we lived on Whittier Street Northwest, which is the neighborhood bordering Takoma Park, D.C. And then after Dr. King was assassinated, there was a tremendous amount of white flight from the city. Late ‘60s, a lot of whites who owned houses west of the park, where there were restrictive covenants on the houses that said they couldn’t be sold to African Americans or Jews, ignored those covenants. And that allowed my parents to buy a house, west of the park. So when I was nine, we moved over to a house that’s basically about two blocks from St. John’s College High School. And I’ve lived in that house off and on for 54 years now.
KB: Let’s fast-forward: you became the Managing Director of the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility just over a decade ago. By then you already had a lot of experience in the energy space, with Pepco and at the DC Green Builders Council — but the DCSEU was a completely new organization. What were those early years like?
TT: When Mary Cheh passed the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 — that’s a pivotal year. The country’s going into a recession. And so the construction market is really slowing down.
There were energy efficiency programs in the city prior to the passage of the Clean and Affordable Energy Act. Pepco was running energy programs for electric customers; Washington Gas was running some energy programs for gas customers. Clearly no coordination of those. And one might argue if I said to Pepco, ‘okay, run an energy efficiency program.’ What’s the problem with that?
They’re in business to sell energy, not to take it off the market. Same thing with Washington Gas. So what the Clean and Affordable Energy Act said was, ‘we’re going to take these programs out of the hands of the utilities, and put them into the hands of a third party administrator.’
The city, in writing the proposal to develop the Sustainable Energy Utility, said this is going to be funded by District ratepayers. So D.C. residents have got to get the first crack at the jobs and there has to be a certain amount of D.C. residents who get work every year. Similarly, a certain amount of D.C. contractors who get the work installing all of the equipment that’s going to be installed — all this energy efficiency equipment and solar equipment. So it was kind of a perfect marriage for me coming out of Pepco, understanding the energy stuff, and having tasted that workforce piece having worked with the Green Builders Council. And that’s why they hired me. Getting it set up was a mixed bag of nightmares and really some huge triumphs and accomplishments.
KB: You were the first managing director at the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility when it was started in 2011. What kept you there, working on energy efficiency and solar installations, for more than a decade?
TT: You know, I looked at what we were doing at the Sustainable Energy Utility, and I really started to see the impacts we were having, particularly on residential customers’ lives.
I remember this lady, I’ll never forget her. We put a solar system up on her house. And she was like, ‘I used to get around town in my ‘BMW’: bike, metro, or walk. She said, ‘I’m saving so much money now on my energy bill — for the first time in my life, I’ve been able to buy a car.’ It was a used car, cost her $800. But she said, ‘I’ve put together enough money to buy a car, I can take my son to school and take him to football practice, pick him up from football practice. These were life changing things that were going on in people’s lives.
KB: Coming from that background, what are your top two or three priorities going forward on the Public Service Commission?
TT: One of the areas that we’re going to look at in the near term — and I think we will be looking at it, quite frankly, for the next half a decade or more — is ‘how do we help the city meet its long term climate goals?’
Second, I would say — and this is work that I think that we can take on more directly here at the Commission than we’ve probably done in the past — I believe that those pieces of the work that revolve around economic opportunities for residents and businesses are not off the table, in terms of how do we incorporate that into the work that we do here at the commission? At our oversight hearing, Chairman McDuffie asked the question three or four different ways: what are the utilities doing, to hire D.C. firms to do work there?
[The utility companies] are some of the largest businesses in our city, and their economic viability is paramount. That’s one of the first things it says in the mission of the Public Service Commission: to maintain economically healthy utilities. You want to make sure that these people are on good financial footing, [because] we’re gonna have a storm, when a quarter or a third of the system goes out, and the meter stops running, okay? And you need to expend millions of dollars to get the system repaired and brought back up. So you’ve got to have economically healthy utilities to take you through times like that.
KB: Would you describe yourself as an environmentalist?
TT: I would describe myself as a people person who has found that all of us live in this environment, all of us can either have detrimental effects or very positive effects from things that go on in the environment. And I have found that working in this environmental space allows me to have a very positive impact on a lot of people’s lives. And that impact includes better health outcomes: lower incidence of asthma, because you’re improving air quality in the city. You’re giving people economic opportunities that they didn’t have before, job opportunities, opportunities to sustain themselves. Having lived in this town all my life and looking at all of these people as my neighbors, I’m trying to improve quality of life here in the city.
Readers: The Informer has exciting plans for our environmental coverage this spring — and we want to hear from you! Do you want to read more of our conversations with key environmental decision-makers in D.C.’s government? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good interview Kayla. Thanks for that initiative.
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