Chris Holden named chair of Assembly’s Energy and Utilities Committee

The time that Democratic Assemblyman Chris Holden sat on the Pasadena City Council was well spent. In the late 1990s, Holden helped the city find its way through a time when the power industry was deregulating and some were calling for Pasadena to sell its utility, which it did not do.

In December, Holden, who is now in his third term in state office, was named chair of the Assembly’s new Committee on Energy and Utilities, with primary oversight responsibilities over the California Public Utilities Commission, energy and communications companies doing business in California, and international trade among its duties.

“Serving nearly 24 years on the Pasadena City Council, with responsibility over the city’s Water and Power Company, provided me with a strong foundation and understanding of the utility industry and the need to be smart and thoughtful as we plan our energy future,” Holden said shortly after he was named to the position.

The new Assembly board is one of two new committees formed last year — the other is the Committee on Communications and Conveyance — from the overburdened Utilities and Commerce Committee, which last session dealt with more than 140 bills on issues ranging from regulating ride-sharing companies to electric utilities.

Holden’s committee is not just about the future of energy in California. It’s also about making sure the nation’s electrical grid is protected from a terrorist attack.

Recent accusations against the Russians conducting cyber interference in last year’s presidential election have led to ongoing investigations in Washington, DC. But those respective probes mask bigger fears of a cyberattack launched against a large utility.

Just days before Holden was named chair, a Pentagon simulation showed the possibly crippling effects of a cyber attack by North Korea that could shut down the US Pacific Command and even damage the power grid on the US mainland.

In 2016, a North Korea cyberattack paralyzed banks, their affiliates, three TV stations, and infected 48,000 computers, causing $756 million in damage, according to The New York Times.

The Pasadena Weekly recently caught up with Holden, who spoke about his new post and some of his concerns.

  

What’s the scope of the new Energy and Utilities Committee?

Part of what we are going to be seeing in our new responsibility over energy and utilities is some of the same things we talked about in Pasadena, including the benefits for ratepayers based on what they pay, seniors and low-income, equal access and closing digital divides for people who don’t have access to the Internet. I want to make sure we are looking at providing efficient power, reliable power to folks throughout the state and being smart in how we do things. And we have to look at climate change. How do our energy policies impact the climate?

That doesn’t put you in line with the Trump administration. They removed the climate change page from the White House website almost immediately after his inauguration.

The last administration lined up philosophically on the issue of climate change. The new one sees the world a little bit differently. The science is irrefutable. We have to be more thoughtful on how we manage our lives and how we can reduce the carbon footprint. We have an opportunity to educate the new administration.

There are numerous reports that the Russians initiated a number of cyberattacks during the election, and former President Obama seemed to frequently mention the vulnerability of our utility grids. Does a hack into our power grids concern you?

We are moving into a new era where cyber security is part of the conversation. Since my focus is on utilities, we want to make sure we are vigilant and knowledgeable and that our power system is monitored properly. What happened during the election is not the only thing we need to be concerned about. We need to make sure our grids are secure.

There has been a lot of talk about taxing Netflix. Telecommunications falls under your purview. Any thoughts on that?

I think in the last committee it would have been in their jurisdiction. I’m not sure if it falls under this committee, but a lot of those same issues will make their way back here, and we will have a chance to weigh in on those types of providers of that type of product. Netflix has replaced Blockbuster, and Blockbuster charged tax, and I had to return it or they would penalize me. The good news is I don’t have to rewind a tape and get in my car and drive to Blockbuster. I don’t know why it would be a problem to explore the tax.

How are you enjoying your time in the Assembly?

This is the start of my fifth year. Under the former term limits, this would be it. The extra time helps us collectively focus on some issues and take our time and move more deliberatively without rushing and be a little more thoughtful.

I miss Pasadena and I miss the council. It is a privilege to continue to work with people and I am enjoying the work and it feels good to do work for the state, but there is no place like home.

How did your time on the Pasadena City Council prepare you to chair this committee?

I got a great education being on the Pasadena City Council. I want to bring that to the state. We need to educate people and push back where we need to when the federal government changes its perspective.

I have always been a supporter of public power.  When Pasadena Water and Power was under Phyllis Currie, who was exceptional as a director, I learned a lot and took a lot of memories away from the battle of the late ’90s when we fought for the utility and the taxpayers.

We were willing to do what was necessary to retain it which was an exceptional decision that has benefitted decades later.

I want to make sure that part of the industry stays competitive and can provide the high quality of services. If you cannot hit a switch and have your power come on you have a problem. I also have to pay attention to the new era: concern about cyber security. And stay vigilant.