PG&E's first big lies

It's not too early to start evaluating the campaign rhetoric and exposing the most ridiculous untruths
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EDITORIAL The San Francisco Chronicle reported Aug. 2 that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is almost certain to miss the state's deadline for increased renewable energy generation. It's a pretty modest goal: 20 percent of the company's electricity is supposed to come from renewable sources by 2010. But PG&E is nowhere near on track.

But the company is well on its way to spending a record amount of money to block San Francisco voters from passing the Clean Energy Act, which would allow the city to develop renewable energy on a schedule that would meet much more aggressive goals. A political front group funded by the utility has already mailed out or paid operatives to place on doorknobs tens of thousands of flyers packed full of lies about the proposal. It's the earliest we've ever seen a full-scale ballot campaign get underway — the election isn't until Nov. 4. By then the barrage of PG&E misinformation will reach a fever pitch.

So it's not too early to start evaluating the campaign rhetoric and exposing the most ridiculous of the lies.

PG&E is starting out with four basic themes that will probably form the center of the fall campaign. The main attack will be economic — the measure, PG&E will say, is too costly for these tough economic times.

The information the company's flacks are putting out is so blatantly inaccurate that it's hard to take any of it seriously. Here's what the utility is saying:

<\!s> The Clean Energy Act will cost $4 billion and raise electric rates by $400 per household. That's based on two complete fallacies, and even by PG&E's standards, this has to go down as one of the worst lies in local political history. For starters, PG&E is assuming that the city will decide to buy out its old local distribution system (that's not mandated in the Clean Energy Act; there may be smarter ways to get into the renewable energy and public power business). But even if the city did buy the system, there's no way it would cost close to $4 billion. The state Board of Equalization appraises utility property every year, and PG&E's own appraisers participate in the discussions. Last year the BOE concluded that all of PG&E's local property — including a big downtown office building — was worth about $1.2 billion. PG&E, to our knowledge, has never attempted to have that figure (and thus its own tax bill) increased to $4 billion. Without the office building, which the city would have no need to buy, the actual distribution system is probably worth closer to $800 million — putting PG&E's number off by a factor of five.

The $400 per household figure is based on the cost of paying off $4 billion in bonds — but all the Clean Energy Act does is give the supervisors the ability to issue revenue bonds. Unlike typical general obligation bonds, the revenue bonds would not be backed by taxpayers, and would be repaid by the money the city would make selling retail electricity. And the only way the supervisors would move to take such a dramatic step as an eminent domain action to seize PG&E's distribution system is if the figures show that the city can pay off the bonds without raising electric rates.

<\!s>The act would give the supervisors a blank check to issue bonds without voter approval. Actually, it would just give the board the same authority the Port Commission and the Airport Commission already have — the ability to issue revenue bonds — just revenue bonds — to fund renewable energy and utility projects. If the projects make no sense economically, investors won't buy the bonds anyway. So only well thought-out projects with a clear revenue stream are even possible. Lots of public agencies have this authority, and it's rarely misused.

<\!s>Electric rates would go up. Nonsense — every public power city in Northern California has lower electric rates than San Francisco.

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