Profiling Peterman: Getting to Know California’s Public Utility Commissioner Carla Peterman

Profiling Peterman: Getting to Know California’s Public Utility Commissioner Carla Peterman

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Now in her third year as a California Public Utilities Commissioner (CPUC), Carla J. Peterman focuses on a wide array of issues facing the state’s leading regulatory authority, including Renewables Portfolio Standard, energy efficiency, alternative transportation, energy storage, and utility rate cases. Previously, Commissioner Peterman served on the California Energy Commission where she was lead Commissioner for renewables, transportation, natural gas, and the 2012 Independent Energy Policy Report. She is the first African-American female to be appointed to both Commissions.

A Rhodes Scholar, Commissioner Peterman earned a Master of Science degree and a Master of Business Administration degree from Oxford University, and is currently finishing her doctoral studies in energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Howard University, where she graduated summa cum laude.

As Commissioner Peterman sees it, “the role of [the] commission is to ensure that Californians receive safe, reliable utility service and infrastructure at reasonable rates, with a commitment to environmental enhancement and a healthy economy.”  While all of these objectives are important, and utility regulators must be able to balance them all, Commissioner Peterman believes that “affordability of utility services and environmental and health impacts from fossil energy sources” are particularly important, especially to members of vulnerable communities.

To address these concerns, Commissioner Peterman told Politic365 that CPUC “has a number of programs to improve utility services affordability and promote low-pollution energy sources in low income communities. For example the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) program and California LifeLine Program programs provide discounts for electricity and gas and telephone services respectively. The Single-family Affordable Solar Homes program offers fully or highly subsidized solar systems to qualified low-income homeowners.”

Though often underestimated, the role of a regulated utilities commissioner is an important one, and Commissioner Peterman supports the  ability of state and federal agencies to engage with each other in order to promote beneficial outcomes. “Given California’s distance from Washington D.C.,” she said, “it is important for us to work well with our federal counterparts to ensure issues important to Californians are reflected in the national discussion.”

In contemplating the effect of the regulations they adopt, Commissioner Peterman and her colleagues “employ a public and deliberative process to evaluate any new policy and rule development.  In general,” she says, “we seek to ensure that the benefits of regulations exceed the costs or risks. Existing law often includes metrics for assessing whether something is in the public interest such as: do the reliability benefits outweigh the costs? Are certain customers disproportionately bearing the cost burden of a policy? We employ these types of metrics in our assessment and stakeholders also provide input and analysis.”

While Commissioner Peterman employs reasoned analysis in making regulatory decisions, she also thinks it’s important for people to take part in the regulatory process themselves.  “Our Commission has a public advisor’s office dedicated to ensuring that the general public has access to us,” she says. “Letters and emails from the public are circulated to all commissioners. We also keep statistics on the number of contacts we have from members of the public on particular issues. The public can also speak at any commission public event, or attend any of our workshops. In addition, representatives of interest groups often intervene formally and take positions in our proceedings, and under certain rules, can also be compensated for that participation.”

One of the challenges facing Commissioner Peterman and her colleagues is the misconception “”that we don’t consider the views of the public and ratepayers.”  As she aptly notes, “public input is one of many factors in our decision-making. We use our technical, financial, and policy expertise to weigh evidence, balance individual positions, comply with the law, and come up with overarching policy and direction.  Public engagement in particular helps us prioritize issues and identify weaknesses in our policies.”  Believing that utilities commissioners “need to strive to make sure our rationale for decisions is clear to the public,” Commissioner Peterman says CPUC created consumer education and awareness materials pertaining to CPUC and its programs, how to file complaints, and how to participate in CPUC proceedings.

Commissioner Peterman believes that “policymaking benefits from a diversity of input and it is important to have mechanisms for regular policy review and course-correction if needed.” She also thinks that that “everyone has a contribution and should be valued and respected.” Her role role as a California Energy Commissioner and her time in academia and as a researcher prepared her well “to engage with a diverse group of stakeholders on energy and regulation issues” and “provided [her] with the analytical and research skills to question and analyze proposals that come before [her].”

“As utility commissioners we should be working on behalf of all ratepayers in our states,” she says. “I think our ability to do so is enhanced when we, our staff, and our utilities reflect our state’s diversity. Having diversity not only brings different experiences and perspectives, but it also sends a signal to the public that all are welcome to participate in our process.  I am proud to sit on a Commission with four other good and dedicated public servants – including two other minority women.”

CPUC also encourages the use of diverse suppliers by the companies its regulates. Notably, in General Order 156, the CPUC encourages investor-owned utilities to purchase 21.5 percent of goods and services from diverse firms – which include minority, women, and disabled veteran-owned firms, a standard that is leading the nation. “In 2013, a number of utilities surpassed this target and there was an annual total of $8.5 billion in supplier diversity spend,” according to Commissioner Peterman.

Since assuming office, Commissioner Peterman is “particularly passionate about the Commission’s efforts to decarbonize the electricity system through greater investments in energy efficiency, demand response, renewable energy, and energy storage.”  For her efforts, she would like to be remembered “as someone who advanced the energy and natural gas sectors in reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change, while continuing to ensure our mission of safe, reliable, and affordable utility services.”

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