April 24, 2002


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Volt revolt

PG&E faces increased criticism from investors and activists alike

By Rachel Brahinsky

At Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s annual shareholders meeting April 17, CEO Bob Glynn told investors profits are growing, consumer confidence is rising, and PG&E will emerge from bankruptcy with a plan to preserve investor capital and protect consumers. But despite Glynn's rosy depiction, all is not well in the house of PG&E.

At the meeting, company honchos got an earful from shareholders, who complained about everything from PG&E's generous executive bonuses to its Enron-style auditing policies to its plans for storing nuclear waste.

And there's intense criticism from outside as well. Consumer groups say PG&E's bankruptcy plan will gouge customers for years. The utility's grasp on San Francisco's energy system is also being challenged by environmental justice advocates and public power promoters. Among those critics a debate is brewing over how best to control the city's energy service.

For many, the answer is clear: "If San Francisco is not careful, PG&E will turn into the next Enron," Ross Mirkarimi, who headed up last fall's public power campaign, told us. "The way to stem the tide is to put public power back on the ballot."

The criticisms expressed at the shareholders meeting were biting. Several shareholders said they were concerned about similarities between PG&E and Enron, an icon of corporate irresponsibility. Others demanded that the company adopt stricter controls over the amount of nuclear waste it plans to produce and store at its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo. PG&E has applied for the right to construct a high-level radioactive-waste storage site near the plant. Investors said they were worried about the safety of PG&E's planned storage facilities and said they feared the utility was not protecting the nearby community in case of a terrorist attack on the nuclear site. Glynn insisted the company's safety plans are sufficient.

Three days later PG&E faced further criticism when some 300 people marched on the company's Hunters Point power plant, according to the Bayview-Hunters Point-based Literacy for Environmental Justice. The demonstrators pointed out that the city's draft energy plan provides new evidence that alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power could allow the city to close the polluting plant.

At a public power meeting held at the California Public Utilities Commission April 16, the pressure on the company was ratcheted up again when state assembly speaker pro tem Fred Keeley unveiled his plan to buy out PG&E's entire northern California operation (see "People's Gas & Electric?," 4/17/02).

Sup. Tom Ammiano also spoke at the CPUC meeting, touching on local plans to challenge the company with a new public power ballot measure. San Franciscans for Public Power, a community group to which Ammiano belongs, is still determining what shape the measure should take. Two key questions: How will a new public power agency be governed, and how quickly will it be mandated to acquire PG&E property?

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission interviewed candidates to complete a public power study for the city April 19. At press time the commission was scheduled to make a final decision April 24. The study is scheduled for completion at the end of July, when it will likely be used to influence the city's public energy plans.

For more information on San Franciscans for Public Power call (415) 364-1522.

E-mail Rachel Brahinsky at rachel@sfbg.com.