First the California Energy Commission had to deal with concerns over how fast or slow it doles out federal stimulus funds; now it’s dealing with concerns over the companies to which the funds are being awarded. The Senate Energy, Utilities, & Communications Committee April 6 formally inquired how the Energy Commission distributed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds over the past year. The informational hearing served as a sort of continuation of the discussion from the committee’s previous meeting on March 16. Last month, committee chair Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) questioned the seemingly low amount of funds issued to Southern California, and the issuance of millions in stimulus funds to an out-of-state company--Oregon-based non-profit Portland Energy Conservation, known as PECI. The Energy Commission is being criticized for awarding $18.8 million in stimulus funds to PECI for it to hire California Conservation Corps workers and train them as energy auditors who would inspect refrigeration systems in grocery stores. PECI would make about $2 million under the contract, even though the California Conservation Corps workers would be paid minimum wage. Adding to the controversy over the contract is that PECI executive director Phil Welker is also executive director of the California Commissioning Collaborative and that a California Energy Commission staff member, Bill Pennington sits on the Collaborative’s board of directors. Another commission staffer, Norm Bourassa, is on the Collaborative’s advisory committee. During the April 6 hearing, Energy Commission chair Karen Douglas acknowledged that the situation might look suspicious, but said everything was conducted on the up-and-up. “This was a clean solicitation. It was found to be [so] by an external review,” she declared. And to back up her case, she brought with her an information packet containing specifics on the commission’s bidding and award processes for grant funds; detailed information on the process PECI went through to be approved for the grant; and a statement from Energy Commission assistant chief counsel Arlene Ichien stating that neither Pennington nor Bourassa had a conflict of interest, nor broke any commission rules during the process of selecting PECI for stimulus funding. “Neither received any gift or income from the contractor or had any financial connection that would give rise to a conflict of interest,” Ichien wrote. “Neither assisted PECI in the preparation of its proposal to the Energy Commission.” But despite this, Senator Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), said in the public’s eye, the grant award looked suspicious. “We are dealing with a situation where perception is reality,” he said. Douglas, for her part, mentioned that she would be willing to establish rules to prevent future appearances of conflict of interest and impropriety. Regarding the issue of equitable distribution of grant funds to companies geographically through the state, Padilla again expressed concerns. Out of $110 million in federal funds the commission is awarding on a competitive basis, Southern California is receiving just 5 percent of the money, Padilla said. Douglas, however, said that although many of the entities receiving stimulus funding may be headquartered in Northern California, in actuality $57 million of the $110 million was going to “statewide or widely regional” projects. The committee also unanimously passed out SB 1476, which provides a layer of privacy for ratepayers with advanced meters. “This ensures that customers that have the new technology of smart meters do not relinquish their personal identifying information,” Padilla said. Specifically, the bill requires utility companies which utilize smart meters that allow a customer to access their consumption data ensure that the customer has an option to access that data without relinquishing personally identifiable information to a third party, and that consumption data be kept secure unless otherwise authorized by the customer.