Joan Smith says she's proof that "a good liberal-arts education can take you anywhere." A one-time high-school French teacher who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in the language, Smith served more than twelve years on the Oregon Public Utility Commission and now advises utility regulators in sub-Saharan Africa.
Smith was appointed to Oregon's commission in 1990. One of three commissioners, she helped oversee the regulation of the state's investor-owned utilities, which are official monopolies, but must, in exchange, serve everyone. The commission approves their rates and makes sure their services are reliable.
A case from 1997 highlights the complexity and importance of Smith's role. At that time, a large energy corporation decided to buy Portland General Electric, a utility company serving many Oregonians. The commission had to determine whether the sale was in the public's interest and, Smith says, the corporation in question wasn't especially cooperative.
Ultimately, the commission allowed the corporation, the now-bankrupt Enron, to buy Portland General, but stipulated that it couldn't take the assets out of the utility. "We told them we hadn't just fallen off the turnip truck, and they had to play by our rules," says Smith. As a result, when Enron collapsed, the utility was still able to stand on its own. Today, Portland General Electric continues to serve some 1.5 million customers.
After retiring from the commission in 2003, Smith became a consultant to the government of Rwanda. She spent three weeks there, advising officials on regulatory issues. Virtually all of the country's infrastructure had been ripped out during the genocide that took place in the mid-1990s. After wireless technology emerged, the government needed to decide whether and how to regulate both the new business and the old.
By the time Smith arrived, previous consultants had already "put everything down on paper," Smith says. "But when the consultants go home, no one is there to carry on or train." Her role, she explains, was "to say, Here's the reality, and you can do it. And here are a few tools that will help you, and here are some resources you can use to keep going."
Since then, Smith has traveled to other African countries, consulting on different regulatory issues in each. She's led executive-training workshops for regulatory commissioners in Lesotho and South Africa. She went to Nigeria to help promote collaborations between different African countries so they could carry cell traffic from one nation to the next without charging customers twice.
In October, she planned to make her third trip to Ethiopia to consult with regulators who are deciding whether to keep the phone monopolies they have or to open up their marketplace.
Smith says she sees a lot of hope for Africa. "The people I work for are bright and skilled and skillful. So long as somebody asks me, I'll go."
Joan Holmquist Smith '64, A.M. '65
Watching over utilities
November 30, 2008