“If PG&E wants to demonstrate its good corporate citizenship, it can start by changing the nature of its relationship with the city.”
If anyone from the Bay Area needs a reminder about the big money, bare-knuckle approach PG&E uses when its interests are threatened, they need only look up the road to what’s happening in Sacramento and Yolo counties.
PG&E has so far spent more than $10 million fighting Propositions H and I in Yolo County and Measure L in Sacramento County, which together would allow the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to annex more than 70,000 customers in Davis and surrounding communities.
The PG&E effort has saturated mailboxes and the airwaves with messages that inflate the cost of taking over its transmission lines, imply threats of a drawn-out legal battle, and make bold claims of its being an environmentally friendly utility (for example, including nuclear power in its calculations of how “green” PG&E is).
“They’re trying to spread fear and confusion,” Davis-based public power advocate Dan Berman told us. “A new thing comes out every day. But we keep citing the message of lower rates and better service.”
In fact, SMUD has rates that are about 30 percent lower than PG&E’s and a power portfolio that includes significantly more energy from renewable sources than PG&E uses. Even King’s claim that PG&E is “the leading solar utility in the county, having hooked up more than 12,000 solar-generating customers” is misleading. The number is large because PG&E has the largest customer base in the country, but the solar rebates were state mandated and SMUD inspired and come from ratepayer surcharges.
Still, PG&E justifies its aggressive campaign in Yolo County in terms of warding off a hostile takeover of its customers. For residents there and new customers in San Francisco that the SFPUC wants to serve, PG&E’s Chiu repeats the mantra that “we have an obligation to provide services.”
Yet critics of the company say the campaign is about more than just holding on to those customers. Right now more than a dozen California communities are pushing for public power, most involving community choice aggregation (CCA) — which allows cities to buy power on behalf of citizens, potentially bypassing PG&E.
“That’s one of the reasons they’re pulling out all the stops in Davis, because if this goes through, it will embolden other communities,” Barbara George of Women’s Energy Matters told us.
San Francisco was an early city to pursue CCA, but plans to implement it have moved slowly, and now other communities — including Marin County and the cities of Oakland and Berkeley — are even further along.
“San Francisco is way behind in community choice,” George said. “The mayor is giving PG&E a lot of time to put out its claims to be green in order to fight this.”
Part of that push involves a slick 16-page mailer sent out in August by “The New PG&E” outlining “a proposal for an unprecedented and far-reaching partnership with the city of San Francisco to create the cleanest and greenest city in the nation.”
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi — a longtime public power advocate — is skeptical. “I welcome it, but I don’t buy it,” he said. “Their desire to work with us is typically predicated on the receding of our efforts to pursue public power.”
In fact, King seemed to say as much in his letter to Newsom when he wrote, “We see the investment of time, money and political capital in the public power fight as a distraction from the real need — providing clean, reliable and safe power to San Francisco.”
Chiu denied that there is a quid pro quo here, saying, “It is our intent to help San Francisco become clean and green, whether or not it comes with the city’s blessing.”
Yet Leal said the company seems more interested in stopping public power than going green.