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Out West student blog

Navigating the Tradeoffs


Checking out a farmer's market during a break. (Photo credit: Mondee Lu)

By Mondee Lu JD-MS '20
Hometown: Novato, CA
Major: Environment and Resources
Intern, California Public Utilities Commission

What I will remember most from my summer at the California Public Utilities Commission are the people who called in to public hearings on energy rate increases. Many expressed distress and outrage at the size of the proposed hikes. From this central sentiment flowed stark stories of financial struggle and precarity--they told of the continuous piling on of obligations and stressors (amplified during the Covid-19 pandemic), the things requisite for the semblance of a dignified life that are insecurely maintained, the doing without and optimizing and streamlining of energy use that the more privileged scarcely think about. 

One particular woman’s point sticks with me: A great number of people are caught in the gap between making so little that rate support is available and making enough that utility expenses can be comfortably accommodated, if not altogether trivial. These folks are often the platonic ideal of a modern energy user: hyperconscious of energy use, always looking to improve their own efficiency, and responding to rate price incentives by shifting the time profile of their energy consumption. They do everything right, and yet they will be the most impacted by utility rates increases because they have so little margin to give.

My work this summer at the CPUC has been forward-looking, in line with the directional momentum of the policy work, which is always on the scent of new improvements, new programs, and new innovations. Through supporting Commissioner Shiroma’s office on tracking and understanding a number of energy-related proceedings before the CPUC, I’ve seen just a small slice of the immense tapestry of work that will go into our state’s energy system over the next years and decades to make it more modern, clean, and resilient. This spans everything from infrastructure upgrades and procurement, to wildfire mitigation, to equity initiatives, to enabling new models of energy delivery based on interesting innovations and concepts (like microgrids). As necessary and vital as these improvements are, the stories of the folks from the rate increase proceedings are a vivid reminder that the cost of all of these programs are borne on the backs of ratepayers. Higher system costs harm everyone, but some sacrifice more than others. Ensuring rigor and judiciousness in regulatory decision-making processes that affect these system costs is a duty and imperative of bodies like the CPUC, as part of their obligation to the public.

I’ve been fortunate this summer to work with people who take this perspective seriously. A big part of the advisory staffs’ role--and mine this summer--is to listen and synthesize. Through seeing the people around me in action and hearing them in conversation, I’ve developed a keener framework for thinking about these issues and a greater appreciation for the complexities of striking the right balance despite deep ambiguity, uncertainty, and capacity restraints. It’s a hard thing to get right, especially for organizations like the CPUC that can only represent a varied public imperfectly while working within their own institutional limitations. But I’ve seen that the intent and the commitment is there in spades, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to work and learn in such a space. 

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