Next PUC chief must be independent advocate for clean energy

Michael Peevey in 2009.
Michael Peevey in 2009.

Gov. Jerry Brown will soon appoint a new president of the California Public Utilities Commission to replace Michael Peevey, who announced last month he wouldn’t seek reappointment in the wake of a tsunami of scandal stemming from his cozy relationship with Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Brown should seek a successor who has no entanglements with PG&E or other electric utilities, and who will help California become the global leader of a 21st-century clean-energy future.

Given the governor’s commitment to curbing greenhouse gases, California should be well-positioned to achieve or exceed its 2020 renewable-energy portfolio standard. But that objective is in jeopardy without strong PUC leadership.

PG&E and other utilities favor centralized, gigantic renewable-energy projects such as solar power plants in desert habitats. This approach keeps the companies in control of electricity generation and locks in their profits, which are based on the wasteful transmission of electricity over long distances.

A growing chorus of clean-energy advocates has a more promising vision to deliver vast amounts of safe, affordable electricity, while also creating tens of thousands of jobs. The key to the new energy economy is to build thousands of small-scale renewable energy facilities such as rooftop solar and other small solar power facilities in the communities where the energy will be used.

This approach creates local jobs and keeps energy dollars circulating in local communities rather than lining the pockets of utility executives and shareholders. With unemployment at 7.4 percent and record drought and wildfires threatening our safety and prosperity, such community-based clean energy is exactly what California needs.

Californians for Energy Choice calls on Brown to appoint a PUC president committed to Brown’s twin goals of exceeding the state’s 33 percent renewable-energy goal for 2020 and ensuring that community-based electricity provides at least two-thirds of the state’s renewable energy.

The PUC must require utilities to pay full value for surplus rooftop solar power generated by homeowners and businesses, offer many more energy-efficiency services and to build a 21st-century energy grid that promotes local clean-energy independence.

The new PUC president must take a firm stand against construction of new natural-gas plants, now known to be far more polluting and planet-warming than previously believed. California could easily impose a moratorium on natural-gas plants and close our remaining nuclear power facility, while generating enough clean energy to power our entire economy. It’s simply a matter of political will.

The PUC can no longer cater to monopoly utilities invested in an antiquated, fossil-fuel and nuclear-intensive business model that puts profits above clean air, community safety and the creation of green jobs. Instead, the PUC must leverage our state’s rich solar and wind resources to usher in a swift transition to a community-based, clean-energy economy.

Rather than colluding, Peevey-style, with utility lobbyists in smoggy backrooms, the PUC president’s considerable power must be used to remove the obstacles that monopoly utilities are throwing in the path of a clean-energy transition.

The utilities spout green platitudes but continue to resist climate-friendly energy programs that threaten their profitability. For example, PG&E has fought to prevent municipalities from creating Community Choice programs that provide residents with a choice of electricity providers and sources. The Marin Clean Energy and Sonoma Clean Power Community Choice programs are already bundling local customers’ buying power to build local renewable energy and efficiency projects and to lower rates. These programs create jobs and are popular with just about everyone, except for the monopoly utilities.

Peevey is a former president of one of those utilities, Southern California Edison, and his litany of misdeeds illustrates why a fox can never be entrusted to guard the henhouse. We urge a sea change in the leadership and direction of the PUC.

Gov. Brown can make local clean energy his legacy by appointing a PUC president who will stand up to monopoly utilities and stand with the people for clean air, green jobs and a 21st-century clean-energy economy.

Erica Etelson is a founding member of Californians for Energy Choice, which led the campaign to defeat a bill this year that would have restricted Community Choice programs.