Head of California Utility Regulator to Retire Amid New Guidelines Being Set to Prevent Wildfires

Only the top few feet of a utility pole survived the Woolsey Fire as it roared over Kanan Road in Malibu. (Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Only the top few feet of a utility pole survived the Woolsey Fire as it roared over Kanan Road in Malibu. (Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

The head of the California Public Utilities Commission announced Thursday that he will retire after almost five years on a job dominated by oversight of devastating wildfires.

Michael Picker said at a commission meeting in San Francisco that he won’t leave his job as president of the state’s utility regulator until Gov. Gavin Newsom names his successor.

In a statement, Newsom thanked Picker for his decades of public service and his deep expertise in energy policy that helped the state examine the role utilities played in recent catastrophic fires. He did not give a timeline for Picker’s replacement.

Picker was appointed to the commission in 2014 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown and became president in December of that year. At the helm, much of his work has focused on regulating and investigating the state’s biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Corp.

Investigators have found that many of California’s most destructive and deadly wildfires in recent years have been caused by PG&E equipment. The commission’s work has been focused in recent years on working to ensure utility equipment is safer and to prevent more fires.

The commission said Thursday that utilities need to do a better job of educating and notifying the public as they widen precautionary power outages this summer.

In its latest effort to strengthen wildfire awareness and safety, the commission approved guidelines for when utilities can cut electricity during high winds and low humidity to avoid sparking wildfires like the one that devastated the Northern California community of Paradise last fall, killing 85 people.

Commissioners also approved utilities’ wildfire prevention plans, which include cutting back vegetation and improving electric lines.

Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, said Picker made great strides in restoring public confidence in the utilities commission.

“I do think that the next president of the commission needs to prioritize building bridges and partnerships with the state Legislature as well as other stakeholders in order to achieve corporate accountability from utilities and telecommunications companies to protect ratepayers and the public interest,” Toney said.

Picker previously served as the governor’s senior adviser for renewable energy from 2009 to 2014, as deputy treasurer in the state treasurer’s office from 1998 to 1999 and in a variety of other state government offices. He also spent several years as chief of staff to former Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna Jr.

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