During 12 years at the helm of the powerful Public Utilities Commission, Michael Peevey took California out of an energy crisis to become a world leader in renewable energy. Amid praise and controversy, he presided over his last meeting Thursday.
Peevey, 76, a onetime labor leader and a former president of Southern California Edison Co., leaves at the end of December amid turmoil, including investigations by federal and state law enforcement agencies over the relationship between commissioners, top staff and regulated industries.
At times Thursday, there was fulsome praise for Peevey's environmental accomplishments. At other times there was a chaotic condemnation of what critics called his bullying leadership style and his overly cozy relations with the power companies he regulated.
The PUC president announced this fall that he wouldn't seek an appointment from Gov. Jerry Brown to what would have been a record third six-year term.
"I've had a really good run," Peevey told a standing-room-only, clapping crowd. He said he was proud of achieving his goal of being "the greenest commissioner in the history of this commission" and of creating programs that became models for other states and nations.
But Peevey's departure occurred amid widespread concern over the commission's failure to focus on safety. Calls for his resignation or removal had been growing since the 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas transmission line that killed eight residents and destroyed 38 homes in the San Francisco Bay Area city of San Bruno.
"That avoidable, fatal explosion was caused not only by PG&E mismanagement but by the laxity that characterized Peevey's presidency," said Mark Toney, the executive director of the Utility Reform Network, a longtime advocate for ratepayers. "No other single event shows as clearly the enormous responsibility CPUC commissioners have to the public, or how horrific the results can be when that responsibility is shirked."
Before the meeting's start, San Bruno's mayor and a state senator from nearby San Mateo held a news conference on the steps of the PUC's downtown San Francisco headquarters. The PUC, said Mayor Jim Ruane, "is at a crossroads in history and it is the time for a new beginning." He noted that both Peevey and the PUC's executive director, Paul Clanon, are leaving Dec. 31.
Ruane is demanding PG&E make public 65,000 emails to see whether they reveal a similar pattern of potentially improper communications between utility executives and Peevey, Commissioner Mike Florio and other PUC top brass that emerged in hundreds of previously released messages. He also called on the commission to levy the maximum possible fine — more than $1 billion — against PG&E for its part in the San Bruno blast.
At the same time, Democratic Sen. Jerry Hill denounced the PUC for "poor governance, a lack of accountability and a culture that valued power and self-congratulation over transparency in public service." Hill said he plans to introduce legislation to remove "the president's dictatorial power over PUC staff, spreading it over all five commissioners." The proposal, he said, also would require commissioners to report all conversations they have with utilities on pending cases.
Under current rules, only the utilities must report communications that are not shared with other parties in a proceeding. Some of the already public communications involved exchanges between PG&E executives and the commission in which the utility appeared to be angling to get a potentially favorable judge assigned to its natural gas rate case.
But discussions of safety and improper communications were absent during the first two-plus hours of Peevey's last commission meeting.
Peevey was hailed by speakers from the power industry, the financial community, minority advocates and environmental groups. They lauded his record fighting global warming, fostering renewable power and expanding Internet communications. Peevey, they added, played a major role in helping California pull out of the 2000-01 energy crisis caused by deregulation and market manipulation.
A letter of praise from former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was read out loud by former Commissioner Susan Kennedy, who told Peevey, "I was proud to be your wingman."
In his letter, Schwarzenegger praised Peevey for "the unflinching leadership you have shown."
A note from Art Rosenfield, the 88-year-old Berkeley physicist known as the "father of energy efficiency," congratulated Peevey for helping to move the state's utilities closer to the legal goal of producing a third of the state's power from renewable resources.
But Peevey's green side didn't much impress the dozens of mostly Bay Area residents who regularly testify that their health is being harmed by electromagnetic signals emitted by so-called smart meters that communicate electricity and gas usage to utilities.
"You belong in jail...," one speaker told Peevey, before his microphone was temporarily shut off. "You have a record of a workplace bully."
Minutes later, just before the lunch break, Peevey was caught on an open mike telling a colleague, "You think I'm going to miss this!"