Source: KQED | By Lily Jamali
California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer announced Tuesday she is resigning at the end of the year, finishing off two-plus years of sometimes tumultuous events at the regulatory agency that oversees the major power companies in the state.
In a six-paragraph note to commission staff, Batjer did not give a specific reason for stepping down, saying only that it “was a difficult decision.”
She said she is “grateful” for the backing of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who selected her for the position in the summer of 2019, and “his continued support as I focus the remainder of my service to facilitate the transition of new leadership” and better position the state to deliver reliable electricity amid challenging wildfire conditions. Batjer’s term was not set to expire until Jan. 1, 2027.
The governor’s office said a decision on a replacement will be made by year’s end.
In summer 2019, Newsom brought Batjer from secretary of the California Government Operations Agency — the department that administers state operations including procurement, real estate, information technology and human resources — to head the utilities commission.
“For decades, Marybel Batjer has helped tackle the most persistent challenges confronting Californians head-on,” Newsom said in a statement. “She is a passionate, smart and thoughtful leader and I’m grateful for her service to the State of California and wish her all the best in future endeavors.”
Batjer became CPUC president as Pacific Gas & Electric — the state’s largest investor-owned utility — was emerging from bankruptcy proceedings in the wake of the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County that killed 84 people. Just a couple of months later, the CPUC approved a controversial bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Newsom that created a $21 billion fund the state’s big power companies can tap if their equipment ignites a wildfire that leads to significant damages.
In August 2020, California suffered its first statewide rolling blackouts in nearly 20 years after a sweltering heat wave and other factors pushed the state’s electricity system to the brink. A week later, another round of outages was narrowly averted.
“Let me make this crystal clear: We failed to predict and plan for these shortages and that’s simply unacceptable,” an angry Newsom said at the time and ordered the CPUC, the California Energy Commission and the California Independent System Operator to deliver a report on what happened and why.
So far this year, a repeat has been avoided, although the system operator has issued eight statewide Flex Alerts, which call on customers to voluntarily reduce their energy use when the system is under the most stress, usually from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The CPUC also experienced turbulence within its ranks when the commission fired executive director Alice Stebbins in August 2020. Stebbins said she was let go for looking into more than $200 million in uncollected money from utilities that stacked up over the years but Batjer and the commission said Stebbins had favored hiring former colleagues for CPUC positions.
Stebbins and her attorneys have filed a lawsuit against the commission.
A little more than three months ago, Batjer appeared at the State Capitol. Some key Sacramento lawmakers criticized the CPUC, saying it often ignores directives from the Legislature. “I do think (the CPUC) has lost track of its mission and lost track of who it is supposed to serve,” Assembly member Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said.
Batjer and the CPUC have also been criticized for being too lenient with PG&E, which last week was charged with manslaughter after its equipment was tied to the ignition of the Zogg Fire last year near Redding. The commission has long been accused of being too cozy with the utilities it regulates.
“Whatever’s been happening at the commission hasn’t been working,” said Michael Aguirre, a San Diego attorney who has often locked horns with the CPUC. “It hasn’t been working for the utilities, for the commission, for the ratepayers or the residents and victims of all these fires. What needs to happen is a strong, reform-minded president of the commission needs to be appointed.”
Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group based in San Francisco, said while Batjer was “light years better” than her two immediate predecessors, Michael Picker and Michael Peevey, “we thought she could have been harder on wildfire accountability” and better at keeping rates affordable for consumers.
Gary Ackerman, a utilities and energy consultant with more than four decades of experience in power issues affecting states in the West, said the governor may well have a tall order in finding the right person for the job.
“If they put somebody in there who looks the part and says the right words, then you’re going to find yourself with another two-year term PUC president,” Ackerman said. “But if they find somebody with some backbone, an independent spirit and a Legislature that respects that point of view — whether they agree or not — I think there might be some hope.”