California’s top utility regulator leaving as state wrestles with wildfires, power grid woes

·3 min read

Marybel Batjer, who steered the California Public Utilities Commission through a brief but tumultuous era of wildfires, bankruptcy and blackouts, announced her resignation Tuesday.

Batjer, in a letter to the commission’s staff, said she will end her tenure at the end of December, just two years after she was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Her term wasn’t due to expire until 2027.

A veteran of decades in state government, Batjer leaves as the state wrestles with instability in its electrical system and investigations into its largest utility, PG&E Corp., and the role it may have played in recent wildfires.

A former government operations secretary, Batjer took over the top job at the commission in August 2019, as Newsom and other state officials were wrestling with PG&E’s bankruptcy. PG&E was driven into Chapter 11 months earlier by a series of catastrophic wildfires, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which left the company owing billions in liabilities.

Amid complaints that the commission hadn’t done enough to police the company, Newsom, Batjer and others brokered an agreement that allowed PG&E to successfully exit bankruptcy in 2020, with an overhauled leadership and operational structure.

The deal included a six-step regulatory model that enables the Public Utilities Commission to step up its oversight of PG&E if the company fails to meet certain safety standards. If the company reaches the sixth step, it could be subject to a state takeover.

The commission voted in April to take the first of the six steps after concluding PG&E had fallen behind on trimming trees and removing other hazards that could spark a wildfire. Since then, the company has come under investigation by Cal Fire in connection with the Dixie Fire, the second-largest in California history. Officials believe the fire was started when a tree came into contact with PG&E power equipment.

On Batjer’s watch, the commission has also had to grapple with troubles on the state’s power grid. In August 2020, just about a year after she took over at the PUC, the state was plunged into two nights of rolling blackouts during a 110-degree heat wave. Although the grid is run by a different entity, the Independent System Operator, Batjer’s agency took some of the blame for the power shortage. A lengthy postmortem, co-written by the system operator, Public Utilities Commission and Energy Commission, blamed the blackouts on poor planning.

In the months since, the PUC has worked on various strategies for bolstering reliability of the grid, including a recently-announced cash-for-conservation program that pays big industrial customers for turning off their electricity during crunch periods. No blackouts have occurred this year despite some close calls.

The utilities commission has also dealt with internal strife during Batjer’s tenure. In September 2020 the commission fired its executive director, Alice Stebbins, saying she had hired or promoted unqualified employees and demonstrated insubordination when her actions were investigated. She initiated legal action against the commission, saying she was fired for being a whistleblower.

In her resignation letter, Batjer said, “This was a difficult decision, as I am so proud of the work we have done together in the face of a changing climate and global pandemic.” She added: “I have had the privilege of serving four California governors and have given my all to public service for many decades. I am now ready for a new challenge and adventure.”

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