Although his six-year term does not expire until January 2020, California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker announced that he will step down from the position as soon as July.
Picker made his announcement toward the end of a May 30 meeting in the commission's San Francisco headquarters during which the agency issued a number of decisions on utility plans to cope with wildfire threats, including proposals to proactively de-energize power lines under extremely dangerous conditions. Picker was the lead commissioner in the proceedings leading up to decisions on the utility wildfire mitigation plans for PG&E Corp. subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Edison International subsidiary Southern California Edison Co. and other utilities.
"To be honest, it makes a great deal of sense for me to leave after the wildfire decisions are voted out and then we have a plan for actually meeting our responsibilities on that plan," Picker said. "That's been my conversation with the folks in the governor's office. We made it clear that I'll stay around until they find a person they want ... to fill the position at the CPUC."
PUC President Michael Picker
Picker said, "They have to think long and hard about the needs of the organization and the direction they want to go to find a person to replace me." He noted that executive branch officials want to take the PUC in a new direction but did not provide any further clarification in that regard.
Gov. Gavin Newsom in his Feb. 12 State of the State address called for major regulatory changes, noting that climate change is putting pressure on all utilities and the entire energy market is evolving from roof-top solar, community choice aggregation and direct access service. In both community choice and direct access, customers pick alternative suppliers other than utilities. In his address, Newsom called for longer-term strategies for the state's energy future.
Newsom released a brief statement on Picker's retirement announcement, thanking the commissioner for his decades of public service.
"Michael has brought deep expertise in energy policy and a commitment to advancing the state's climate goals," Newsom said. "His knowledge, vision and commitment has been critical as the state examines the role of utilities following recent catastrophic wildfires and necessary changes in an era of climate change. He will continue to play an important role as the PUC transitions to new leadership."
Picker, who previously served as former Gov. Jerry Brown's energy adviser, was appointed by Brown to the commission in January 2014 for a six-year term, and Brown picked him to head the agency the following December. Under Picker's leadership, community choice supporters have criticized the commission for throwing up roadblocks against alternative energy providers and favoring monopoly utilities.
Picker's announcement at first was met with silence from his fellow commissioners, though shortly afterward, Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma interrupted PUC Executive Director Alice Stebbins to ask Picker to keep the commissioners posted. "We'll want to have the opportunity to give you the proper sendoff when the time comes," Shiroma said.
In addition to presiding over wildfire and utility safety concerns during much of his tenure at the CPUC, Picker has been vocal in warning that local government-managed community choice aggregators are increasingly taking millions of retail customers from utility energy services and that direct access suppliers are taking the utilities' largest customers. "If we are not careful, we can drift into another crisis," Picker said in 2018, referring to a time when California's deregulated power market sent prices spiraling out of control, prompting shortages and power blackouts during what has become known as the 2000-2001 energy crisis.