PG&E's attack on CCA

San Francisco is lagging — it's time to get on the stick

EDITORIAL It's a bit odd (if not terribly surprising) that the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story April 16 on public power and alternatives to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — and almost entirely ignored what's going on in the paper's hometown. And it's striking (if, again, not surprising) that the story, by Kelly Zito, allowed a dubious expert from the University of California at Berkeley, who never supported public power and generally supports private sector and deregulation efforts to undermine, without rebuttal, the community-based anti-PG&E efforts.

But in the midst of this journalistic train wreck was the nut of a fascinating story: PG&E is on the ropes as communities try to find more renewable energy supplies — and is fighting back in ways that are demonstrably illegal.

There's a message here for San Francisco, where plans for community choice aggregation are moving along slowly but steadily. The giant private utility will be trying to sabotage the efforts here, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera needs to be moving — now — to make sure there's no illegal interference.

The focus of Zito's story was Marin County, where there's an active and aggressive move to create a CCA (community choice aggregation) system that would replace PG&E as an energy supplier in 11 cities. The program would function as a buyers' co-op, purchasing electricity in bulk for all of the businesses and residents in those communities, then using PG&E's lines to transmit the power to customers. Marin is pushing the environmental angle: PG&E uses at most 12 percent renewable power, and Marin Clean Energy can offer consumers 100 percent green power. While that option might cost a bit more (an additional $5 per month for the average customer) Marin's CCA also says it can offer a 50 percent renewable option that meets or beats PG&E's rates.

The Chronicle's expert, UC Berkeley professor Severin Borenstein, is quoted as saying that it's risky for cities to get into the electricity business. But that's just horse pucky: cities have been in the power business for as long as there's been electric power. In the Bay Area, Alameda, Palo Alto, and Santa Clara all have established successful public power agencies — and all have cheaper rates than PG&E.

The state law authorizing CCA programs bars PG&E, a regulated utility, from lobbying against their implementation. In fact, in hearings before the state Pubic Utilities Commission, the company promised it would be neutral toward CCAs and wouldn't try to discourage its customers from joining the public programs.

But in the Central Valley, where a group called the San Joaquin Valley Power Authority has been trying to create a broad-based CCA, PG&E has admitted it illegally tried to scotch the deal. Lawyers for the SJVPA filed a complaint with the CPUC, and on April 10, PG&E settled in a way that clearly admitted guilt. The company agreed to cease its illegal lobbying and pay the SVJPA $450,000 in legal fees.

It was a significant victory for public power — and San Francisco needs to make it clear right now that it will fight just as vigorously to stop PG&E interference in its own CCA efforts. The CPUC is accepting comments on the settlement, and Herrera should file a statement supporting SVJPA, in effect putting PG&E on notice that it will face immediate, furious legal action if it dares try to undermine a San Francisco CCA. Herrera also needs to put a legal team together to prepare to fight PG&E as the city's own plan moves forward.

It's embarrassing that San Francisco — the only city in the United States with a congressional mandate to run a public power system — is behind Marin County and the Central Valley in getting its own CCA up and running. But the process is moving forward€.