News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Departing Public Utilities Commissioner Has Strong Words For Utilities, Legislators

Mark Ferron | Photo: CPUC

Revealing that his fight against prostate cancer has taken a turn for the worse, California Public Utilities Commissioner Mark J. Ferron resigned Thursday from his seat on the CPUC. In the process, he made a remarkable statement about the future of energy in California in which he had some startling things to say about both California utilities and the state's legislators.

Appointed to the CPUC in 2011 by Governor Brown, Ferron said Wednesday he had hoped to complete his term as Commissioner, and had been considering the possibility of a second term. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012, Ferron found last week that his cancer had survived a year of aggressive treatment. "We are now into strategies to drive my cancer into remission or to prolong a high quality of life for as long as possible until a cure can be found," Ferron wrote in his final Commissioner's Report Thursday. (We at ReWire wish Commissioner Ferron the very best of luck in contending with his cancer.)

But Ferron's final Commissioner's Report didn't just contain an update on his health. It also contained a remarkably frank assessment of the health of California's renewable energy and cleantech scene. The departing Commissioner's words echoed what many advocates of solar and other renewables have been saying for some years -- and Ferron may not have made California utilities happy as a result.

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After thanking his fellow Commissioners for their support and for his opportunity to serve, and encouraging his colleagues to get themselves or their loved ones screened for prostate cancer (a good idea), Ferron offered six "parting observations" on the CPUC's role in bringing California into the looming cleantech future.

The first point lauded the state for taking the lead in renewables in a climate in which, in Ferron's words, "there is no real Federal energy or climate policy, thanks in large part
to the obstructionists in the Republican Tea Party and their allies in the fossil fuel industry." Ferron did note that he thought the state's leadership in energy efficiency had slackened.

It was in his second observation, regarding the California utilities which CPUC is charged with regulating, that Ferron started to take off the rhetorical gloves:

We are fortunate to have utilities in California that are orders of magnitude more enlightened than their brethren in the coal-loving states, although I suspect that they would still dearly like to strangle rooftop solar if they could.... I wonder whether some top managers at our utilities have the ability or the will to understand and control the far-flung and complex organizations they oversee. And I am very worried about our utilities' commitment to their side of the regulatory compact... their strategy is often: "we will give the Commission only what they explicitly order us to give them." This is cat and mouse, not partnership, so we have to be one smart and aggressive cat.

In his fourth observation (skipping over number 3 for a moment), Ferron spelled out just where that "aggressive cat" approach would need to come into play: with the issue of net metering, in which residential and commercial owners of rooftop solar panels can run their electric meters backward when they feed solar power into the grid.

The recently-passed law AB 327 charged the CPUC with charting that policy's future in the state, and as Ferron writes, the Commission is likely to face a huge amount of pressure from utilities, who generally see expansions of net metering as a threat to their business plans. "[W]ith the passage of AB327," writes Ferron,

... the thorny issue of Net Energy Metering and rate design has been given over to the CPUC. But recognize that this is a poisoned chalice: the Commission will come under intense pressure to use this authority to protect the interest of the utilities over those of consumers and potential self-generators, all in the name of addressing exaggerated concerns about grid stability, cost and fairness. You -- my fellow Commissioners -- all must be bold and forthright in defending and strengthening our state's commitment to clean and distributed energy generation.

Ferron's third point describes tensions between the CPUC and the Legislature. "We also have a Legislature that by many measures is very inexperienced, and yet considers itself expert in energy policy matters. Many of the more influential members and veteran staffers seem to display an open, almost knee-jerk hostility toward the CPUC," writes Ferron. "It's as if some Legislators (or their staff) think that their reputations will be enhanced by slapping down this Commission's policy initiatives, rather than working on writing and passing legislation that we can quickly and effectively implement."

The remainder of Ferron's observations concern "challenges" the CPUC faces, including lack of resources and what he calls a "serious governance problem at the heart of the Commission":

We Commissioners rightly are held responsible for what happens in this building and yet we do not have any effective means to provide guidance and oversight to the CPUC's permanent management and staff.

All in all, a remarkable description of California's renewable energy establishment by someone who, at least until this week, has been an insider. Ferron's plain words offer a useful model for other public servants who want to make the state a better place. Here's hoping more people will follow Ferron's example. Get well soon, Commissioner.


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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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