Pick an arcane area of law and within it you’ll find people who not only grasp it but love it. For Kira Loehr, Citizens Utility Board executive director and general counsel, it’s energy law.
Loehr has been CUB’s director since October, and was acting director for a year prior. She has been its general counsel since 2010. The four-person agency acts as public advocate for citizen and small business ratepayers before the state Public Service Commission on matters that affect the rates for electricity, natural gas and water.
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Loehr’s story is a familiar one: she came to Madison to attend school and never left. Loehr got her bachelor’s degree from St. Louis University in Missouri, went to law school for a year at Loyola University in Chicago, then finished law school at UW-Madison in 2002. In between Loyola and UW, she worked as an administrative assistant at a Madison law firm that had a big energy-related case.
“That was my first exposure to the energy world, and I loved it,” Loehr said. “I love numbers, I love analysis, I love systems and I just loved the regulatory system and wanted to learn more about it. From that moment, I was hooked, and it just took a while to get a position where I could do it full time.”
CUB is facing a challenging time. A grant it receives from the state to represent ratepayers before the PSC, representing about three-quarters of its budget, was cut from the Joint Finance Committee’s version of the state budget. While most other states have offices or people within state agencies to speak for ratepayers, Wisconsin is among the few that do not.
Your passion for energy law sounds a little geeky, right?
(Laughs) What? No, I think it’s true, and it’s funny because I just think it’s fascinating. The physics and the complications of the system itself, seeing how electricity is produced and then distributed and then lands at customers’ homes, and the ways today in which that is changing.
What is CUB’s role in the regulation process?
CUB is like the watchdog. If (utilities) want to raise rates, they have to come to the commission with an application seeking permission to do that. Shareholders and utilities are just doing their jobs when they’re trying to maximize the profit for shareholders. And entities like CUB are doing their job when they’re trying to get the best value for consumers and ensure that consumers don’t overpay. And the commission does its job when it balances those things and it results in just and reasonable decisions.
Historically, how successful has CUB been at maintaining that check and balance?
We have saved an astonishing amount of money given the incredibly small staff that we have. Over the last 10 years we’ve saved over $3 billion.
What do you like most about working at CUB?
I think learning the system, the understanding of how things work and the ability to present it in a persuasive way, and to be the voice for people who don’t otherwise have a voice. These proceedings are so complicated. The rules to participate in a case are 15 pages long and I love those rules, and I love participating, and getting to see the inner workings of a utility and finding the situations where we can save money.
Does this leave you time to enjoy life outside of this, and if so, what do you like to do?
Sometimes it can be difficult. But my favorite things are outdoor activities. I love playing tennis and soccer and have been on tennis and soccer teams around Madison for years. Hiking throughout many of the gorgeous county and state parks and just all in all enjoying outdoors.
Were you an outdoor enthusiast growing up?
I was. It’s a little different. I’ve kind of picked extremes. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, which is right on the Gulf Coast and it’s a beautiful city. It’s also very, very hot. It can be a little tricky to be outside all the time. And then I’ve discovered that in Wisconsin in the winter it gets very, very cold. It’s a little tricky to be outside there, too..
Do you find things to do in the winter, then?
A lot of my soccer and tennis shifts indoors. The good part about Wisconsin is that it understands the snow and ice so it has facilities for activities.
— Interview by Ed Treleven