PG&E wields power
October 21, 2009 5:01 PM
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is currently spending millions to thwart public power plans in San Francisco through a new statewide ballot initiative - plans that could lower the price of power to the city's residents.
Community choice aggregation would allow San Francisco to buy electric power in bulk from PG&E and sell it to customers. The electric company would still own the transmission facilities, but the city would be able to decide the price tag on power, according to Andrew Souvall, a spokesman for PG&E.
The state law that allows CCA's was written by former state Sen. Carole Midgden, D-San Francisco, in 2002. The law prohibits utilities from interfering with or trying to stop community attempts at creating public power in California.
If put into law, it would require a two-thirds vote before any city, county or public agency can attempt to create or expand any public power facility, according to Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman with the utility reform network, TURN, which advocates local public power.
"PG&E is trying to create a monopoly in California," Spatt said. "They could wipe out community choice aggregation for the whole state in one fell swoop."
A committee helming the ballot initiative, originally titled "The Taxpayers Right to Vote Act," has PG&E as its biggest monetary contributor and member, according to Souvall.
The petition committee has until Dec. 21 to collect the 694,354 signatures necessary to get the measure on the ballot. The earliest that voters could see it on the ballot would be June 2010, said Greg Larsen, spokesman for the committee.
"We're doing well at a normal rate," Larsen said of the current status of the petition. "We expect to qualify for the ballot in time."
Spatt said the power company has already tried to prevent CCA programs in Marin County and the North Bay.
"Municipal utilities have lower rates," she said.
San Francisco has not yet formed a CCA to control public power within the city.
San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who is currently the chair of the board's Local Agency Foundation Commission, has been pushing the issue and trying to get the Public Utilities Commission to fight against the ballot initiative, according to Mirkarimi.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced legislation to enact a plan for a CCA in the city over two years ago. The plan called for more efficiency and conservation measures, in addition to sourcing from solar and wind to make 51 percent of the city's energy renewable by 2017, according to Mirkarimi.
However, CCA control over energy creates serious financial risks, since the city cannot guarantee lower prices to its customers, according to Souvall.
"CCA's simply do not have the resources to low cost energy sources," Souvall said of many CCA plans he's seen in California. "CCA plans may actually increase customer rates."
Last June, the San Joaquin Valley Power Authority suspended CCA in Kern county on not having adequate energy distribution proposals, according to Souvall.
Larsen said if San Francisco were to enact a CCA plan, it would require significant upfront costs in creating government bodies to run it.
"If the government commits to it, then the taxpayers have to pay for it," he said. "The people have a say."
"The ballot initiative hasn't qualified yet," Spatt said. "PG&E has unlimited amounts of money and small organizations like us don't."
However, with a two-thirds statewide vote, San Francisco might not have public power as an alternative option.
"People have a right to vote on whether they want a CCA or not to control their power," Souvall said. "It's still very early on in the process."
By the numbers:
*Numbers are based on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission estimates of energy rates and demands and the San Francisco CCA implementation plan.
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