Energy deficiency

Green Issue: Utilities miss energy efficiency goals but seek more public funds anyway
Photo by Thomas Hawk

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As the window of opportunity for averting the worst-case global warming scenarios narrows, wise use of energy seems increasingly urgent. So millions of dollars in state and federal funding and significant contributions from utility customers are devoted each year to improving energy efficiency in California.

It's a crucial program designed to reduce consumption and planet-damaging emissions and eliminate the need for new fossil-fuel burning power plants. Yet the state's energy-efficiency programs are often run by investor-owned utility companies, such as Pacific Gas & Electric, that have been missing efficiency targets yet demanding ever more public money anyway.

Critics say the programs would yield more energy savings on the dollar if local governments or nonprofits were in charge. The utilities have not only fought to maintain control of these programs, they're now seeking even more taxpayer money by trying to claim federal economic stimulus funds.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is engaged in a long, slow process of rolling out an ambitious community choice aggregation (CCA) program, Clean Power SF, which would utilize 50 percent renewable energy and promote green technologies in the city.

While state law guarantees that energy-efficiency funding generated by San Franciscans could be funneled into Clean Power SF, it isn't likely to happen without a fight from the state's most powerful utility.


Although PG&E and other utilities are entrusted with millions in ratepayers' money to promote energy efficiency, independent analysis demonstrates that they've had limited success. But last December, they garnered rich rewards anyway, at ratepayers' expense.

In 2007, the California Public Utilities Commission adopted a system to encourage utilities to strive for high energy efficiency standards. Utilities could receive hearty payouts for achieving a certain threshold of energy savings, the commission decided. Conversely, if the companies failed miserably, they'd be slapped with penalty fees. Rather than take the utilities' word for it, the CPUC directed its Energy Division to inspect the companies' energy efficiency program performance and report on it each year.

About a third of the funding for these programs is amassed with a mandatory fee on every ratepayer's monthly energy bill, called the Public Goods Charge. This is combined with a second pot of ratepayer money and collected by utilities to fund initiatives such as rebates, light-bulb discounts, energy retrofits, and consumer-education drives. The program budget for all the utilities from 2006 through 2008 was around $2 billion. For the 2009 to 2011 program, the utilities are collectively seeking closer to $4 billion.

Last December, based on the utilities' own claims that they'd hit the targets for the 2006 — 2007 program, the CPUC handed over nearly $82 million in incentive payments — with some $41 million going to PG&E. The commission accepted the utilities' claims because the Energy Division's verification report was behind schedule, and the utilities argued that this delay would postpone their payments and thus undermine the whole incentive.

At the same time, the commission noted, "We have profound concerns that accepting the [utilities'] proposal ...