Public power fights back

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By Rebecca Bowe

monopoly money.jpg
Which would you rather have: $11.6 million in cash, or a pile of Monopoly money?

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. stands to lose 40,000 meters to a public power district, which says it can deliver electricity service that’s cheaper, more reliable, and more accountable to ratepayers than what the private utility offers.

In a unanimous 5-0 vote yesterday, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District Board -- a public utility agency -- voted unanimously to approve an application to the San Joaquin Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) to provide electricity service to some 40,000 customers who are now served by PG&E. The service territory spans the South San Joaquin County communities of Manteca, Escalon, and Ripon.

The move came after years of careful planning and extensive studies, SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields told us. An economic study concluded that switching from PG&E service to public power would save ratepayers $11.6 million annually -- cash that would stay in the community rather than lining the pockets of a private, monopolistic utility.

Shields said between 70 and 90 people turned out for a public hearing held yesterday before the Board voted to approve the application. “Everybody that spoke against it was paid by PG&E,” he noted. “Everyone else was in favor.”

Shields said the Board’s approval was not a reaction to the PG&E-backed proposed ballot measure, the New Two-Thirds Requirement for Local Public Electricity Providers, which would erect a major hurdle for fledgling public-power programs by requiring a two-thirds majority vote at the ballot before they could move forward. Nonetheless, the ballot measure -- widely perceived as a preeminent strike against public power -- came up at the hearing.

“We don’t need to have a vote on whether or not this should happen,” noted Leo Zuber, retired Ripon Unified School District Superintendent, addressing the SSJID Board. “We have a vote every three years on some of you. If we don’t like what you do, the direction you’re headed, then that’s when we take care of it.”

Shields echoed Zuber’s view, adding that under the status quo, customers cannot vote on what PG&E does with their money. “We have seen PG&E and their lawyers violate fair practices, and take ratepayer funds and fund any number of political campaigns,” many of which drive up electricity rates in the end, Shields pointed out. “Ratepayers don’t get to vote on how their funds are used, or on the Board of Directors at PG&E.”

The SSJID Board submitted its application to San Joaquin LAFCo yesterday, taking the first step toward becoming a public electricity provider. LAFCo will hold a hearing early next year to determine whether SSJID can move forward.

From there, a legal battle will likely ensue, in which SSJID’s goal will be to wrest the service territory’s electricity system away from PG&E, either through negotiating the price of the infrastructure or invoking eminent domain, which it is empowered to do under state law.

Meanwhile, opposition is building against PG&E’s proposed ballot measure in San Francisco, with Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, chairman of the city’s own LAFCo, leading the charge. A couple weeks ago, the Board of Supervisors met in closed session to discuss the measure.

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