Q&A: Embattled former PUC chief Peevey resurfaces with a green energy book

Michael Peevey served for 12 years on the California Public Utilities Commission, most of that times as president.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

For much of the last three years, former California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey has kept an extremely low profile as investigators review whether the onetime top state utility regulator improperly influenced how much consumers must pay for the premature closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant, an amount that ratepayer advocates have decried as excessive.

But Peevey recently broke his long public silence to announce a new book he co-wrote about California’s leadership role in developing clean energy.

The book, “California Goes Green: a Roadmap to Climate Leadership,” mentions very little about San Onofre, which closed after a January 2012 radiation leak, caused by a faulty replacement steam generator.

And in an interview, Peevey had even less to say about accusations that he was involved in illegal deal-making that favored power company shareholders over ratepayers.

Other than a couple of statements defending his involvement in the San Onofre plant closure process, Peevey declined to discuss the failed nuclear facility, for which Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. customers are paying billions of dollars.

Instead, he spoke about his book, co-written with friend and former utility spokeswoman Diane Wittenberg, that describes how California has emerged as a national leader in clean energy.

Why did you choose to write this book?

I care deeply about climate change and a whole series of other things — renewable energy and what have you. So I thought someone ought to try to record the story, the California story, of how we got to where we are.

I decided to write this book a couple of years ago, actually, when I was still at the PUC. I said, ‘When I retire from this thing, I’m going to sit down and — while still young enough to hold up the pen — write something. I asked, whom I had known for years, Diane, who had worked with me at Edison at one time and was the head of corporate communications and has good writing skills, if she would join me. She agreed, and we did this for two years without severing our friendship.

You describe this book as part of a call to action. Why did you feel a call to action was needed in regard to this book?

What was striking to me was the election of [President] Trump. And it was clear from Day One — even before he was elected — what he was talking about was revisiting the coal industry, trying to rejuvenate the coal industry. And then his appointment of the attorney general of Oklahoma to head up the EPA. Anybody that follows events knows these are very bad signs for the kind of approach that, not only Jerry Brown talked about, the first time as governor and the second time, but also that Arnold Schwarzenegger championed.

The true hero in this thing is not just Jerry Brown but also Arnold Schwarzenegger. The book is dedicated to the two of them as well the people of California. Schwarzenegger started us really down the pathway of solar energy big time. It had been there before, I would say Edison was the first one that did it, under their former CEO, Bill Gould, years ago. He’s profiled in the book, Bill Gould, because he’s one of the guys that got me to come to Edison. I was attracted by his vision.

In terms of the state’s three investor-owned utilities, has it been Gould’s mentality that has helped Edison in what some people are describing as the better of the three in terms of embracing the changing energy world?

I don’t know. I honestly think that the intensity of vision and all that was there at Edison has declined, significantly. That’s the truth, in my opinion.

What were the most significant roles of the utilities commission and how have they changed?

The way the system used to operate, prior to the mid-70s, was future electricity demand was determined and decided by the utilities, who then went and got approvals through a certificate of necessity from the PUC. The PUC largely rubber-stamped what the utilities brought them. That function was transferred — along with others — from the PUC to the energy commission. And the energy commission put teeth into that and decided the future needs, the electricity needs, were the state’s responsibility, not the private utilities. That was huge step.

The other big thing was, where are you going to site these power plants? The third one was having an R&D function. And the fourth one, which has been incredibly developed today, is these whole energy efficiency programs. Those are all fundamentals that we sketch out in the book there, that were very significant transfers of authority.

What about the impact of building more natural gas plants — including during your tenure as utilities commission president — especially when we knew we wanted to move more toward a cleaner energy future?

We went as fast as we could go with renewables, I think. Maybe we could have gone slightly faster. There’s always going to be a role for additional other sources of power besides wind and solar, there’s no question about that.

You have to understand that the state, when the energy crisis hit in 2000-01, we didn’t have enough generation. The only thing that was capable and available, and you could get up and running that was not intermittent, that was 24-7, in a short period of time was natural gas plants. So we did build several.

Do you believe regionalizing the state electricity grid operator, the California Independent System Operator, to include other Western states is needed to fulfill a clean energy future?

Yes, because I just think that if we can somehow get the whole physical region — California, Washington, Oregon and so on — we’ll have a more efficient transmission system, just like you have in the Midwest and East right now in Pennsylvania and Maryland and all the way into Ohio.

You get a more efficient system, number one. Number two, you will find more markets for those products. Number three, you will open up further markets for production, like wind out of Wyoming, which is a very high wind state. We need a clearer transmission path to bring some of that wind power to California. Overall it’s just a more rational system.

How do you reconcile some of the big issues regarding power in Southern California with the lack of San Onofre and critics saying you didn’t handle its closing right?

I’ve tried to stay away from this topic. I couldn’t make a secret deal. My biggest concern about that plant was the impact of the greenhouse gases by closing it.

Support our journalism

Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

For more energy news, follow Ivan Penn on Twitter: @ivanlpenn