Catching up with SMUD board of director Michael Picker

Governor's energy czar and SMUD board member Michael Picker looks at Sacramento's energy future

Whitewater enthusiast Michael Picker uses his kayaking skills to navigate the rapids of Sacramento politics.

He is Gov. Jerry Brown’s point person for growing the world of nonfossil-fuel-fired electricity, and for ensuring that 33 percent of the electricity powering California by 2020 comes from solar, wind and other alternative resources. This is no small feat.

“Working for a major policy decision maker is always hard water,” said Picker, who’s officially the governor’s senior energy consultant. There has been a lot of resistance from entrenched interests, particularly in the early years, including the well-funded, privately owned utilities. Infighting among California and out-of-state renewable-energy advocates also made for choppy waters.

In addition to being the governor’s renewables czar, Picker has the distinction of being former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s green-energy adviser. And before being appointed by Schwarzenegger and reappointed by Brown, Picker worked as Democratic State Treasurer Phil Angelides’ deputy.

For seven years, Picker was also former Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna’s chief of staff. He had his own consultant practice, and worked in the first Brown administration as a deputy assistant in the Department of Toxic Substances Control. In the late 1970s, he was a Stop Environmental Cancer organizer.

He is known to be a tough negotiator with a strong sense of fairness, according to some who have worked with him.

And, at the start of this year, he took on another new job: Picker was elected to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District Board of Directors and represents Ward 5. This is his first elected position.

Why now?

“Sacramento ratepayers need a strong advocate to help steer a clear path through enormous changes in the energy world,” said Picker, a Sacramento resident for more than 30 years.

Picker expects California to have 80 percent of its electricity powered by renewable resources by 2050.

This probably won’t occur via increasing the state’s 33 percent renewables-energy portfolio standard to 80 percent, he explained. The state’s current renewables standard legislation was loaded down with controversial requirements and complex methodologies, which has slowed the development process.

One hot topic is how to define bona fide imported green electricity power. The latter issue has been hotly contested because, in addition to curbing greenhouse gases, the state’s renewable mandate seeks to increase in-state green-power projects. Out-of-state renewable advocates insist that power imports can come with lower price tags.

Picker acknowledges the route for growing the amount of nonfossil-fueled electricity has yet to be determined. “How are we going to integrate, get the juice flowing and keep carbon emissions out of electric market?” he asked.

Part of the answer is in energy-storage technologies that hold excess wind and solar power, so that the juice is available when needed. Wind and solar projects produce uneven flows of energy into the grid. For example, sometimes there is a lot of wind production at night when overall energy consumption drops off. The goal is to be able to store that excess so that it is available when lights, coffeemakers and office equipment power up.

Expansion of existing and emerging energy-storage development, however, is in limbo, because of concerns over the associated price tag, and debates over who should pay for it, plus the lack of a state policy.

“We know the price will come down,” Picker said of energy storage, particularly with the electrification of the transport industry. Electric vehicles not only are charged by the grid, ideally at night when energy use is down, but they also can act as mini-energy storage units and send power into the grid.

Like the state, increasing the amount of renewables in SMUD’s 900-square-mile territory is no easy paddle. The utility expects to meet a 33 percent renewable level by 2020. How to reach that goal while keeping a lid on utility bills is the crux of the matter.

“There’ll be some disagreement,” Picker said, “but, eventually, it will be for the betterment of all our lives and an example to other utilities around the state.”