Retiring California utilties commissioner warns colleagues of hostility to solar

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In his final address before retiring due to cancer, a member of the California Public Utilities Commission has issued a warning to his fellow commissioners to protect the state’s commitment to clean energy.  

Commissioner Mark Ferron, pencilled in to remain in his post until 2017, has stepped down from his role at CPUC, the board responsible for regulation of utilities in California, having battled prostate cancer for two years.

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Ferron’s outgoing final report to the commission included a strong defence of rooftop solar power generation and voiced fears that utilities would only make progress on clean energy if ordered to do so. Ferron said that while “there is no better place to be than California when it comes to energy and climate policy”, the commission needed to watch utilities’ “legalistic, confrontational” approach to regulation “very, very carefully”.

Ferron described the state as “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”.

Overseeing the regulation of net metering in California was recently placed into the hands of CPUC following the issuance of Assembly Bill 327. The bill removed a proposed suspension of the state’s net metering programme and allows CPUC to order utilities to procure more renewable energy.

“…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.”

The report said that in Ferron’s view, the relationship between utilities and the commission was more “cat and mouse” than a partnership, with Ferron asserting that CPUC needed to be “one smart and aggressive cat”.

“Their [utilities’] strategy is often: 'we will give the Commission only what they explicitly order us to give them',” Ferron said. He also lamented the relative lack of regulatory power given to the CPUC.

Ferron was appointed commissioner by governor Jerry Brown in March 2011, coming from a background in finance. Ferron said the decision to resign came after consultation with his family, doctors, Governor Brown and CPUC president Michael Peevey.

Referring to his disease, Ferron warned men to be vigilant over the risk of prostate cancer and joked: “There are many famous people with the disease: Governor Jerry Brown, Secretary of State John Kerry, Robert DeNiro, Warren Buffet – and I like to think that I exhibit many of the finer qualities of all these men.”

Ferron thanked his staff and colleagues at the commission and its sister agencies and said he hoped to successfully “manage my health challenges” and looked forward to returning to energy and environmental policy in future.

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