JUICE: Dear Gov. Brown

By Published On: November 30, 2014

A long time ago you said that at your age “tomorrow is today.” That was on your radio show, We the People, during the interlude between your first terms of public service and your comeback. There was your stint as the mayor of Oakland, then state attorney general, and now you’re Governor again. Throughout it all, energy and the environment have always been among your chief concerns. It’s said that in your first go round as governor you kept a copy of E.F. Shumacher’s Small is Beautiful handy. In your second stint as chief of state, among your goals are to create 12,000 MW of distributed generation capacity by 2020 and put 1.5 million electric vehicles on California’s highways by 2025. The resignation of California Public Utilities Commissioner Mike Peevey after being tainted with scandal—whether deserved or unwarranted—gives you a new opportunity to achieve your goals. Like in the old days of driving a simple Dodge Dart and sleeping on a mattress on the floor, you can appoint a visionary to lead the powerful constitutionally-chartered agency which oversees how untold billions of dollars are spent each year. Through the next chair of the commission, you have the opportunity to reconfigure the state’s enormous energy industry to truly make “small is beautiful” your legacy. It would be a great gift to future generations—at least on par with your bullet train and water bond measure. Small energy technologies can stimulate local economies by empowering residents and businesses to make their own decisions. They can create new economic opportunities, including for manual laborers in the construction field, so many of who are marginalized and whose skills are devalued. Let’s face it, though, right now the utilities commission is an agency still recovering from the hangover of the state’s energy crisis. Although whether it was from Pino Noir or Petit Sirah is in question. That’s why that despite its efforts to push your small-is-beautiful transition, the commission increasingly has become an obstacle to giving this gift to the future. It’s understandable that players who lived through and managed the crisis have been fixated on the rear view mirror, despite your mandate to drive forward. And why not move ahead briskly when the technologies needed for zero net energy buildings and homes are a reality—solar panels, smart home energy management systems, battery storage, and the like—that have become within reach of the average person. It seems that about the only thing stopping these technologies from becoming dominant is the policy environment. That paradigm is protecting utilities at the expense of competitors. That’s where your ability to hire key people with wits and youth and a different way of approaching regulation come in. A fresh face can change things, though it won’t be easy. Your appointee will face formidable obstacles. The chair will take over an agency formed to control robber baron monopolies in an era that was closer to the 19th Century than to the 21st Century. And it’s arcane and publicly inaccessible decision-making process is like a battered inefficient Studebaker versus a Nissan Leaf. Because of this, it’s effectively dominated by utilities and the usual players. That’s why the first move for the next commission chair should be to reform that decision-making process to lower the bar for participation. In fact, that’s a necessary precursor to lowering the bar for full-fledged entry of small-is-beautiful technologies into California’s energy market. What’s needed in place of the commission’s cumbersome and tedious administrative law process is a hybrid approach. The agency needs to provide the public with genuine on-the-record opportunities for public input in addition to relying on the current administrative law court proceeding process. After all, the interests of the public and small parties—from grassroots environmentalists to solar installers and energy efficiency retrofitters—are just as valid and important as big utilities and the usual “stakeholders” who dominate today. Jerry, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the same as when you were the state’s chief executive the first time and got the ball rolling on cleaning up autos by appointing Tom Quinn to chair the Air Resources Board. He freed it from captivity by Detroit and brought the people of California the gift of the catalytic converter, which has markedly cleaned up their air. Now, the Air Board could offer a model for energy decision making. Your new commission president could start, for instance, with a creating a roadmap to get to your small-is-beautiful destination. Right now, the California Energy Commission does the planning, even though it has practically no authority to turn its blueprints into reality. So instead, have the utilities commission create a master energy plan through a rulemaking-like process in which the staff drafts the document in open meetings that are webcast with materials readily accessible and in which participation is open to all. Then take public comments and conduct a robust debate in a full public hearing. This would give the comments of Joe the solar installer as much consideration as a Pacific Gas & Electric vice president meeting with a commissioner over dinner and two bottles of Pinot or Sirah. Next, administer that plan through a remodeled version of the current administrative adjudicatory process that incorporates formal opportunities for public comment, both written and through hearings. Make the commission’s staff include and address these comments as part of the formal record in drafting decisions. Conduct the public hearings in the locales where decisions become effective, rather than in the agency’s tower in San Francisco. Your next commission president should draft legislation needed to fully make these procedural reforms and to open California’s energy market to competition. Consumers should be able to choose how they get their energy, with utilities providing little else but transmission and distribution services. At the same time, separate utility affiliates should be able to compete in providing energy products and services in this competitive market. Fair is fair. Finally, as the market opens, it will be necessary for the state to focus heavily on consumer protection to prevent false and manipulative marketing claims and predatory behavior by adopting and enforcing needed rules through a simple administrative process. This should be done through a new office lodged, perhaps, within the California Attorney General’s office. Other states—from Illinois to Massachusetts and New York—have opened their power and gas markets to competition and are beginning to pull even or into the lead on energy efficiency, solar installations, and other distributed technologies, even though California originally championed the small-is-beautiful technology movement. To stay ahead, you need to make a bold move in appointing a new commission president. That’s because tomorrow has finally become today, making now the moment you’ve waited for.

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