California's top energy regulator rolls with power company executives behind the scenes
Tesla manufactures sleek, electric, zero-emission sports cars with prices in the six-figures, and it's gearing up to roll out a model that will cost somewhere closer to $50,000. The company's success was helped by a sales-and-use-tax exclusion granted by the state of California last year. Peevey had a hand in that, too. Few Californians may have heard of the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority (CAEATFA), a state body within the Office of the Treasurer, which has the power to authorize sales-tax exclusions for companies that are developing alternative energy technologies. Peevey has a seat on it.
In October 2009, according to a CAEATFA document, Tesla was granted a sales tax exclusion from that financing authority. The sports car manufacturer had received a tax break of $3.3 million as of December 2010, and stands to gain a tax break as large as $29.1 million, depending on its property purchases. As a CAEATFA member, Peevey approved the deal by proxy.
A central question is whether the CalCEF dollars that benefited Tesla and other CalCEF portfolio investments were originally derived from PG&E shareholder profits or ratepayer funds. Adler was careful to note that the initial $30 million came from company shareholders, not PG&E customers. But Lynch pointed out that every dime in PG&E coffers originates with the millions of customers who pay utility bills.
Lynch noted another provision of the bankruptcy settlement agreement, which guarantees PG&E a minimum annual profit of 11.2 percent, catapulting it forever into a higher rate of return than the 8 percent to 11 percent profit traditionally granted by the CPUC in prior decades. "They're manipulating how big this bucket is to siphon off funds into programs like CalCEF," Lynch said. "It's all to give Peevey and his friends access — and to greenwash what was a very stinky deal for the ratepayer."
ELUSIVE CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE
In California, a national leader in addressing climate change, the stakes are high in the energy sector. The CPUC is tasked not only with shoring up transmission-pipeline safety to prevent another San Bruno disaster, but helping to chart a course away from reliance on fossil fuel-powered energy sources.
CFEE, the Energy Coalition, and CalCEF share a common thread — their missions relate to advancing the cause of a clean energy future in California. And while utility funding and partnership is evident in all three operations, the overarching goal is understood to be green.
But as Adler observed, the utilities themselves present one of the greatest obstacles to progress on a clean-energy transition. While California has increased renewable energy sources, it's done a poor job at supplanting fossil fuel generation with green alternatives, in part because the CPUC has allowed for increasing fossil fuel power generation even as renewable energy expands. According to a listing on the California Energy Commission website, nine natural gas power plants have won approval statewide and are moving toward construction, while six new ones are under review.
The CalCEF approach to addressing climate change, rather than aggressively targeting polluting industries, is to encourage the fledgling green industry in hopes of facilitating success in partnership with the financial sector. In many cases, the backers of the clean-tech companies are the same players behind the big energy giants.
Environmental advocates are critical. "If anyone thinks the CPUC is set up to serve public interests, forget that," says Al Weinrub, executive director of the Local Clean Energy Alliance, a group that organized against PG&E's ill-fated Proposition 16 last year. "They never have and they never will."