ORA May Get Authority to Sue CPUC

By Published On: April 17, 2004

The Office of Ratepayer Advocates would be allowed to challenge California Public Utilities Commission decisions, and the line separating the office from the CPUC would be clarified, under a bill passed by the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee this week. ?It is a sorry state of affairs when the ORA has to protect ratepayers from the CPUC that was designed to protect ratepayers,? said Senator Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) at the April 13 hearing. SB 1624 by committee chair Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach), which passed on a 6-0 vote, was vigorously opposed by Sempra Energy on grounds that ORA employees are ?CPUC staff.? The measure would in effect let the commission sue itself, said Carolyn McIntyre, Sempra lobbyist. Regina Birdsell, ORA director, pointed out that while the CPUC and ORA share staff information, there is no confidential data exchange. Also, the director serves at the will of the governor and does not have a fixed term, unlike CPUC members. Furthermore, although ORA?s funding is included in the CPUC?s budget, it is a separate line item. Former Assemblymember Rod Wright (D-Los Angeles) attempted without success to end ORA a couple of years ago via a move to eliminate its budget. The list of agency differences, however, was not enough for some committee members. They insisted on adding language to the bill to ensure a solid wall between the two organizations to avoid conflicts of interest. Bowen agreed to amend her bill to address those concerns, noting that other states? ratepayer advocate offices are housed within their attorney general?s offices. She recommended against moving ORA to the AG?s office because efficiencies would be lost?and because the California AG is not keen on absorbing the organization. The Bay Area Rapid Transit System could continue to tap into inexpensive hydropower from the federal government?s Central Valley Project and be exempt from exit fees under SB 1201. The bill by Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) is an urgency measure that requires a two-thirds vote; it passed 6-0. BART will receive power from the Western Area Power Administration until the existing contract expires in 2006. The bill also would require Pacific Gas & Electric to carry the juice to the transit system. Two other bills were debated but votes put off. One would push up the 20 percent renewables standard to 2010 and create a renewable energy credit trading program, and the other would exempt a military base from exit fees. SB 1478 by Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto) would advance the renewables portfolio standard mandate by seven years and allow the green attributes of renewable supplies to be split off and sold as a commodity. The bill originally attempted to require public power agencies to meet the RPS mandate, but that provision was removed. PG&E, which originally pushed for the legislation, switched to opposing it when the munis were no longer required to meet the state?s 20 percent green power threshold. The green trading program being promoted is said to create more flexibility to meet RPS standards but would come with conditions to avoid cheating. That includes prohibitions on resales and the sale of credits attached to renewables counted toward the RPS mandate. In addition, there would be measures to protect against double-counting the green power attribute. Calpine was concerned that the renewable energy credit trading program would allow out-of-state renewables to replace in-state supplies, in particular jeopardizing deals for the company?s geothermal resources. Jan Hamrin, director of the Center for Resource Solutions, which helped develop and promoted a green tag program, said the in-state versus out-of-state renewables issue ?is a reciprocity transitional concern.? She thinks that some utilities might meet the 20 percent green supplies standard with green credits attached to outside supplies but that in-state power will be recompensed later. ?You want a combination of power,? she said. Senator Nell Soto?s (D-Pomona) legislation that sought to exempt from exit fees the Norton Air Force Base in her struggling district failed passage. The exemption under SB 1575 was sought because the area being promoted for redevelopment was not included in the state?s power forecast when it was buying power. Bowen and other committee members said the fee waiver would be at the expense of their constituents because fewer customers would pay off the power bill from the crisis. In addition, they said the proper place to raise the issue is at the CPUC, which is deciding who will and won?t pay exit fees.

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