New appointees could transform the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), from a "lap dog," into a watchdog
The end of an era?
UCAN's Executive Director, Michael Shames, was quoted today in an interview with Amita Sharma of National Public Radio's local affiliate KPBS. Click here to listen to the story.
The California Public Utilities Commission, (CPUC), was chartered more than 100 years ago to regulate monopoly utility rates. But since 2001, when companies like Enron gamed our electric markets by intentionally creating blackouts, CPUC has operated more like an institution from the Dark Ages than an enlightened regulatory court. For the last ten years, CPUC Commissioners have been beholden to big utilities. Now, all of that could change as Governor Brown begins appointing consumer-friendly commissioners to CPUC.
CPUC's Dark Age began with the Governor Davis Administration appointment of a former Pacific Gas and Electric CEO, Michael Peevey, in 2002. The logic of putting Mr. Peevey on the Commission was that as an insider, he understood the industry and how to deal with power companies. When you think about it, it is a bit like putting the local crack dealer in charge of the police department's drug task force. But even in 2002 there were still a few pro-consumer voices at CPUC to balance out the industry perspective. Unfortunately, in the intervening decade, those voices have been stifled, outvoted, or replaced.
This is why Governor Brown's new appointees are so very important.
Today's KPBS story by Amita Sharma exposes just how ridiculous the pro-utility contingent has become at CPUC. It quotes UCAN's Executive Director, Michael Shames, as saying “It was embarrassingly bad. In the 25 years I’ve been overseeing utilities and been involved in the regulatory process, the past six years have been by far the worst.”
Perhaps the most absurd example of utility excess is the proposal by Pacific Gas & Electric to generate solar power in outer space.
Sure, CPUC has a $1 billion budget, but outer space? Seriously. We can't make this stuff up. Check out the story.
In another equally absurd pro-utility decision, SDG&E received $29 million to help pay for SDG&E's insurance costs from the 2007 wildfires. CPUC approved the hikes even though state investigators proved that SDG&E was actually responsible for three of the fires and had blatantly violated CPUC safety rules.
The worst example of CPUC failure was the recent approval of the $2 billion Sunrise Powerlink. CPUC's own administrative law judge ruled the link was not necessary.
“The administrative law judges who serve at the Public Utilities Commission are a group of very smart people, most of whom have been at the PUC for a very long time … so their opinion actually has a fair amount of weight," Shames said. "These commissioners, some of whom are still there, would literally ignore the wisdom not just of their staff but the judges.”
Three new Commissioners have been appointed.
Governor Brown has appointed three new commissioners, and we are hopeful that they will restore the balance of power at CPUC. They are:
Mark Ferron, Catherine Sandoval, and Mike Florio. Florio in particular shows great promise. Prior to becoming a CPUC Commissioner he was the Senior Attorney for TURN, The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group that has close ties to UCAN.