The $2.8 billion rate hike

PG&E's higher electric rates will suck vast sums from SF's economy

In the middle of what economists are calling the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, when California unemployment rates have hit post-WWII records, commercial defaults are rising, and families and businesses are hurting, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is asking for electricity rate hikes that would take at least $47 million out of the local community, a Guardian analysis shows. By some estimates, the impact could be has high as $787 million.

And the economy is already losing between $174 million and $483 million a year because the city hasn't created a public power system. So the total impact on the San Francisco economy of paying PG&E's high private rates could total $2.8 billion. That's money that local residents can't spend on good and services, local businesses can't use to hire more workers and city government can't collect taxes on.

The analysis is based on work done in 2002 by Irwin Kellner, chief economist for Marketwatch and a former economics professor at Hofstra University. Kellner analyzed the savings to the Long Island economy after that community replaced a private utility with a public power system (see "The $620 million shakedown, 9/4/2002).

It's not a complicated set of calculations.

During the fiscal year ending in 2009, San Francisco residents and businesses paid $644 million on electricity, according to data from the city's Controller's Office. If PG&E's proposed 6.5 percent average rate hike is approved for 2011 (with additional hikes of 1.4 percent and 1.1 percent the following two years) that number would ultimately rise to $704.5 million.

Over the next four years, as those rate hikes kick in, San Franciscans would be handing PG&E an extra $157 million. That's $106 million businesses won't have to pay employees or make capital improvements, and $51.3 million consumers won't have to spend in local businesses.

"That's $51 million less that would otherwise go into San Francisco neighborhood businesses," said Ted Egan, chief economist in the city's Office of Economic Analysis. "Instead the $51 million goes to PG&E, and they won't spend it all in San Francisco. Some will go to shareholders and outside the region, so the rate hike would end up having a larger impact than the initial $51 million."

That "larger impact" is called the multiplier effect: if you give one dollar to someone likely to spend it locally, he or she will buy shoes at a local shoe store, whose owner will use the dollar to buy groceries at the local grocery store, whose owner will pay the counter worker, who will spend the money on paint at the local hardware store — and by the time it's circulated through the local economy, that dollar has created far more than a dollar's worth of economic activity.

Economists argue on how to figure the exact impact of that dollar. Kellner has done studies of the economic impact of utility rates and estimates the multiplier — the economic impact of electricity rate hikes — to be five, expanding the $157.4 million to over $787 million.

Egan takes a more conservative view of the San Francisco economy and consumer spending. He estimates that the multiplier for utility rate hikes is closer to 0.3 — or slightly higher when commercial rates are factored in. According to his estimate the impact would be closer to $47,231,083.86.

The multiplier suggested by federal government economists during the stimulus bill discussion is 1.8, the number cautiously posited by Cynthia Kroll, senior regional economist for the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at UC Berkeley.

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