PG&E attacks consumer choice

The ability of cities to switch to public power could be eliminated if a proposed state ballot initiative moves forward

A ballot initiative backed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. could amount to a death sentence for community choice aggregation (CCA) and expanded public power in California.

Dubbed the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act, the proposed initiative would require a two-thirds majority vote at the ballot before any local government could establish a CCA program, use public funding to implement a plan to become a CCA provider, or expand electric service to new territory or new customers.

The new hurdle would make it very difficult for a local government to move forward with a CCA, while at the same time making it much easier for a utility to defeat public power at the ballot.

Signed into state law in 2002, CCA allows local governments to buy up blocks of power to sell to residents, making it possible for cities and counties to set up alternatives to private utilities such as PG&E and, in many cases, to offer electricity generated by clean, renewable power sources.

The initiative is in its earliest stages, and it likely would not be placed on the state ballot until the June 2010 election. At this point, "it's unclear how much of a campaign it's going to be," according to Greg Larsen of the Sacramento public relations firm Larsen Cazanis, a spokesperson for the effort. "It's a long way off."

That hasn't stopped local CCA supporters from sounding alarm bells. "Urgent/Bad! PG&E State Ballot Measure To Kill Public Power & CCA," public power activist Eric Brooks wrote in the subject line of a widely disseminated e-mail last week. "It's red alert time boys and girls," he wrote, saying the proposal "will kill all new Public Power and Community Choice Aggregation projects statewide."

Brooks isn't alone: everyone the Guardian spoke with who is involved in the creation of San Francisco's CCA voiced concern that the proposal could kill any future community choice efforts.

The proposed initiative was submitted to the California Attorney General's office May 28 with the contact listed as the Sacramento law firm Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, a powerful player with a long history of working with PG&E on ballot initiatives. Larsen confirmed that PG&E had provided the $200 filing fee, the only amount spent so far on the embryonic proposal.

The official proponent of the initiative is Robert Lee Pence, apparently the same person who was listed as an opponent of Proposition 80, a 2005 ballot measure that dealt with utility regulation. Opposition to Prop. 80 was heavily funded by PG&E and other utilities, and the initiative failed by a wide margin.

Pence's group, Californians for Reliable Electricity, listed Steve Lucas as a contact on 2005 campaign documents. Lucas is also listed as the point person at Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor for questions regarding the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act.

The address listed for the organization is the same as that of Townsend, Raimundo, Besler and Usher — a Sacramento political consulting firm that also has a long history of working with PG&E on political campaigns.