By Tom Kleckner
AUSTIN, Texas — Shelly Botkin, the Texas Public Utility Commission’s newest member, has hardly followed a conventional path to becoming a utility regulator.
An avid reader, the Lubbock native chose comparative literature as her college major before finding her way into cultural anthropology. That led to several years as an English teacher in Mexico City, where Botkin honed her Spanish and toured the country. Eventually, she returned to the U.S. and enrolled in The University of Texas’ Institute of Latin American Studies, where she wound up bogged down in academic jargon.
“I found it difficult to communicate with ordinary people,” Botkin said. “It wasn’t for me.”
So what does one do with an anthropology degree? In 2000, Botkin’s only career choices were an entry-level job at the Texas State Capitol or a position with the advertising company behind the Southwest Airlines and “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaigns.
Botkin chose wisely and found herself answering phones and processing data in then-state Sen. David Sibley’s office. Sibley was one of the key architects behind Senate Bill 7, which had just deregulated the electric utility business in Texas.
After her first day on the job, she said, “I had to ask, ‘Somebody please tell me what Senate Bill 7 is about.’”
Sibley retired soon afterward, and Botkin spent the rest of the 2000s bouncing from one state political office to another. She worked for the lieutenant governor and in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, tackling air quality and electric utility issues, water policies and environmental regulations. Botkin was present for both the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone debates and the private-equity leveraged buyout of TXU, Texas’ largest utility.
She found the work fascinating, though it involved 750 bills in the House and 350 in the Senate each five-month session, depending on where she was.
“I spent 10 years learning how to pass or kill a bill. … I learned some important lessons,” Botkin said. “Do your homework and read the documents in front of you. Listen to people; talk to people; look for options. If you don’t know something, say you don’t know, then educate yourself. If you want people to understand your issues, you have to talk to them in a way that they understand you.”
Botkin’s work attracted the attention of Theresa Gage, then ERCOT’s corporate communications director. Gage called Botkin in 2010 and asked if she would join the grid operator to run its governmental relations group.
“It was one of the best phone calls I’ve ever made,” said Gage, now ERCOT’s vice president of external affairs and corporate communications. “We promptly paid her back by putting her through one of the most incredibly stressful years known to the ERCOT market.”
At the time, the grid operator was focused on meeting a December deadline to go live with its delayed nodal market. ERCOT and the PUC were both facing sunset reviews to decide the agencies’ continued life, while the state was in the midst of a severe drought that would only be exacerbated in 2011 by a late-summer heat wave that pushed the Texas grid to the limit.
Botkin calls it a “meaningful exercise in crisis communications.”
“That was punishing,” she said. “I learned to hit refresh on the computer and [monitor] the prices and reserve levels.”
Although out of her comfort zone, Botkin said she gained a much better understanding of corporate governance and a business enterprise’s inner workings.
“She was a huge asset and helped us in immeasurable ways every single day,” Gage said.
When the Texas governor’s office reached out to Botkin earlier this year regarding a vacancy on the PUC, she hesitated. Noting the term is “a yearish” — it expires in September 2019 — and reflecting on her own job security at ERCOT, Botkin said her first reaction was, “I don’t know.” (See ERCOT’s Botkin Named to Texas PUC.)
But then she recalled her days at Girls State, a program designed to educate high school children on the duties, privileges and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship. As a teenager in the flat lands of West Texas, where, she said, “You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but you feel like you’re the center of the universe.” Girls State helped Botkin escape the long shadow of her older brother and carve out her own place in the world.
“It gives you a sense of, ‘Why not you?’” she explained. “It’s not just ‘girl power.’ It gives you the impression that it’s going to be your turn to serve someday, so get in there and help the state move forward.
“The Girls State words started working on me. ‘I do know something about this. I can help.’ So far, it’s been great.”
‘A Spacious Place’
Botkin is a woman of few words on the bench, yielding to the more vocal DeAnn Walker and Arthur D’Andrea during the commission’s open sessions. Just don’t mistake that for a fear of public speaking.
“I’m not averse to speaking, but there’s so much talking behind the scenes that by the time we come out, there’s really not much to say,” Botkin said during a recent Gulf Coast Power Association luncheon address.
She may not be a lawyer like the other two commissioners, but “because of my legislative experience, I’m very aware words have meaning, and I understand why they do,” she told RTO Insider.
Botkin has quickly adapted to the pace of the regulatory world, where much of her time is spent reading legal filings and documents. She said she enjoys the certainty of making a dental appointment and keeping it. It’s a luxury she didn’t have at ERCOT.
“All the truisms about it are, in fact, true. ‘You’ll be spending a lot of time reading’; that’s 100% true,” Botkin said. “My role at ERCOT was up-to-the-minute, responding to things, getting back to people as soon as possible. In this role, there’s a lot more room to reach out into the future.”
And it’s a busy future for the PUC. Texas’ next legislative session begins in January, which means budgets and reports will be coming due. Commission staff have spent time at the Capitol reviewing the recent federal tax cut legislation and its effects on utilities. The PUC’s dockets include investor-owned utility rate proceedings, recovery of Hurricane Harvey’s costs, ERCOT market changes and the use of non-traditional technologies, such as battery storage, in electric delivery service.
Comments on the last issue are due Nov. 16, and Botkin is looking forward to reviewing them.
“It’s kind of hard to get their arms around it,” she said. “It’s like trying to pick up an octopus.”
Asked about the concept of wires companies owning storage assets, a concept opposed by many generators, Botkin said she has “no grand prognostication.”
“One of the reasons I find this industry so interesting is that things change. That’s interesting to me,” she said. “Given the schedule we have in the fall, I don’t think I’ll develop any Commissioner Botkin initiatives, because there’s plenty of work to do.”
Country crooner Mac Davis writes in his song, “Texas in My Rear View Mirror,” that he once thought “happiness was Lubbock, Texas, in my rear-view mirror.” It’s a common joke in Texas, one Botkin alludes to when she refers to the Lubbock area as “a spacious place.”
Botkin once felt the same way, but that was before she left Lubbock for Washington University in St. Louis and her anthropology degree.
“It’s the study of why people do what they do, why they think what they think and the institutions they create to organize their world,” she said.
And so, having studied the people and the institutions around her, Botkin has found her place in the world. For the time being.