Governor Jerry Brown has appointed environmental policy experts Martha Guzman Aceves and Clifford Rechtschaffen to the California Public Utilities Commission to replace Commissioners Michael Florio and Catherine Sandoval, whose six-year terms conclude on January 1, 2017. 

Martha Guzman-Aceves, 39, has served as a deputy legislative affairs secretary in the Office of the Governor since 2011, focusing on natural resources, environmental protection, energy and food and agriculture, according to a press release. From 2005 to 2011, Guzman-Aceves served as sustainable communities program director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, a nonprofit legal service program created to help California's low-income individuals and communities. She has also worked on labor and environmental issues for United Farm Workers and holds a Master of Science degree in agricultural and resource economics from the University of California, Davis.

Clifford Rechtschaffen, 59, also comes to the CPUC from the governor’s office, where he has served as a senior advisor on climate, energy and environmental issues since 2011. In 2011, he also served as acting director of the California Department of Conservation. Rechtschaffen, who holds a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School, served as special assistant attorney general in the California Department of Justice, Attorney General's Office from 2007 to 2010. Before that, he directed the environmental law program and co-founded the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law.

"Martha has the experience, know-how and insight to well serve the people of California at the Public Utilities Commission,” said Governor Brown, in a statement. “Cliff’s experience as a lawyer, teacher and specialist in environmental and energy matters equips him to do an outstanding job on the Commission. Both have sound judgment and a commitment to protecting ratepayers and ensuring safe, reliable and climate-friendly energy in California."

The selection of Guzman-Aceves and Rechtschaffen sends a signal that the Golden State is committed to developing a low-carbon economy as President-elect Donald Trump takes office with plans to roll back President Obama’s environmental measures. Both CPUC appointees are registered Democrats with strong backgrounds in environmental protection. 

Advancing clean energy solutions in an effective way requires more than a pro-environment stance, however. The CPUC is currently overseeing multiple dockets related to the transformation of the electrical grid, and the incorporation of distributed energy resources in particular. The work is complex, and even good-faith efforts to expand clean energy markets can go awry.

Going forward, California utility regulators will continue to oversee the closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant and utility responses to the Aliso Canyon gas leak. There are also several efforts underway to evolve distributed resource planning, including the Distribution Resource Plan (DRP) proceeding and the Integrated Distributed Energy Resources (IDER) rulemaking and related proceedings.

With Florio’s departure, one of the two new commissioners may choose to take up his effort to align utility investments and planning with the deployment of distributed energy resources (DERs) as part of the IDER proceeding.

Florio’s plan, filed in April, would require California utilities to complete at least one and up to four pilot projects that replace traditional grid investments with competitive solicitations for DERs. By contracting with a third party to meet grid needs with cheaper options, a utility can earn a 4 percent return on the payments it’s making to the DER provider. The proposal aims to address the conflict between the rollout of DER technologies and the traditional utility business model.

Florio’s IDER proceeding “began to address the siloed approach to decision-making at the CPUC that undermines the development of a broad strategic vision for our state's energy future,” said Steve Chadima, director of California initiatives for Advanced Energy Economy, in a recent interview on Commissioner Florio’s legacy. “We have high hopes that his successor will pick up and expand on this foundational effort, along with lessons learned from the DER pilots, for the benefit of businesses, consumers and utilities."

In addition to overseeing the evolution of the electricity sector, the CPUC regulates matters related to privately owned electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, railroad, rail transit and passenger transportation companies. On January 1, Guzman-Aceves and Rechtschaffen will join CPUC President Michael Picker, as well as Commissioners Carla Peterman and Liane Randolph.

The appointment of Guzman-Aceves and Rechtschaffen requires confirmation by the California State Senate within the next year before the decision becomes official; however, rejection is unlikely.