Consumer advocates leave PUC, Governor picks Poizner, Grueneich

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Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — Putting his stamp on the state’s top energy regulator, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Thursday the appointment of high-tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner and environmental attorney Dian Grueneich to the Public Utilities Commission.

Schwarzenegger’s appointees will replace Loretta Lynch, a one-time PUC president, and Carl Wood, a longtime union official. Both were appointed by Democratic former Gov. Gray Davis and have been considered strong advocates for consumers.

Their departures led consumer groups to wonder if the new members might skew toward business interests, but Schwarzenegger said in a statement that both would look to cut costs for everyone.

The appointments come as the governor grapples with his own energy platform, a vision that so far has yet to take shape. While Schwarzenegger has said he favors deregulation of the market, he has not brought forward a comprehensive plan.

“The PUC will play a key role in stabilizing the electricity market, encouraging the development of new supplies of natural gas, increasing investments in energy efficiency and renewable power, and promoting new telecommunications technology,” Schwarzenegger said.

The positions will not become vacant until Jan. 1, and the state Senate must confirm both appointees.

Poizner is the best known of the two, primarily by virtue of his spending more than $6 million of his own money in an unsuccessful bid for the state Assembly last month. Poizner, a Republican, lost in a heavily Democratic district in Silicon Valley even with Schwarzenegger’s strong endorsement.

Poizner, 47, made close to $1 billion in 2001 by selling his cell phone global position system company to telecom giant Qualcomm. Since then, he’s engaged in public service, serving as a White House fellows and later as a teacher in a low-income San Jose high school.

Energy experts, however, said Grueneich has the deeper background in energy issues. She’s practiced environmental law for most of her 25-year career and was once staff counsel for the California Energy Commission.

The 52-year-old Berkeley resident is also a Democrat and a former president of the California League of Conservation Voters.

Consumer groups reacted less to the two appointments than to the losses of Lynch and Wood, whom Mindy Spatt of The Utility Reform Network called “two strong voices for consumers. Certainly we’d hoped that the governor would have appointed people who would share that feeling.”

Poizner, Spatt said, supports deregulation of the electricity market, which her group strongly opposes. She also noted that Grueneich has represented some corporate customers in the past, including some that sought approval for direct access to the energy market during the 2000-2001 energy crisis – a controversial practice where big power users were given the right to buy electricity from alternate suppliers and bypass their local utility.

Doug Heller, an advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said Lynch and Wood were often “the voices of consumer interest on the PUC.

“More often than not, they were, unfortunately, the dissenting voices on a very pro-business commission,” Heller said. “If we haven’t replaced Lynch and Wood with equally aggressive advocates than it will be smooth sailing for the big utilities come January.”

But Devra Bachrach of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, called Grueneich’s appointment “great,” primarily because of her long support of renewable energy. “She’s been a long time friend of the NRDC.”

Bachrach was less effusive about Poizner, but noted that his campaign platform included support for renewable energy, which they considered “very optimistic.”

Jan Smutny-Jones, executive director of the association Independent Energy Producers, agreed, calling both “talented” and “bright.” He said he didn’t think the new members would swing the board’s politics in any direction.

“I don’t think there will be any change,” he said. “What the commission needs are bright, dedicated people and both these individuals fulfill that need.”

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