The dirty fight over clean power

The dirty fight over clean power

PG&E works to thwart a renewable public power measure

By Amanda Witherell

A charter amendment for renewable energy and public power appears headed for the November ballot, and already Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is rounding up front groups and touting inaccurate figures in an attempt to scuttle the plan.

The San Francisco Clean Energy Act, introduced by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, would mandate that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission “produce a comprehensive plan for providing clean, secure, cost-effective electricity for city departments and residents and businesses.”

If passed, San Francisco would exceed state standards by requiring 51 percent clean, renewable energy by 2017; 75 percent by 2030; and 100 percent by 2040. Workforce development is also part of the plan, and if it’s determined that public ownership of the grid is the way to go, any employees fired by PG&E will be hired by the SFPUC.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is talking about taking over PG&E,” Brandon Hernandez, the corporation’s manager of government relations, said at a June 27 Rules Committee hearing on the legislation. “PG&E’s system is not for sale,” he asserted. He then went on to say a takeover would cost the city “at least $4 billion.”

PG&E spokesperson Darlene Chiu told the Guardian: “That’s our estimate for what our system costs in San Francisco.”

But the California State Board of Equalization says all of PG&E’s state-assessed San Francisco property was worth $1.2 billion in 2007. The board’s appraisers assess PG&E’s property for tax purposes and their final figure includes millions of dollars of property that San Francisco would not want to own.

PG&E threw other punches at the city. Hernandez threatened the loss of as much as $29 million per year in taxes and charitable giving. “We no longer will be contributing to San Francisco’s nonprofits and service organizations,” he said of groups that received $5 million from PG&E last year.

That money buys some political loyalty. The only organizations that spoke against the measure — the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the Bay Area Council, and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute — all received bucks deluxe from PG&E. Between 2004 and 2006, the Chamber of Commerce Foundation received $166,000 from the utility; the Bay Area Council and Economic Forum grossed $132,500; and APRI banked slightly more than $100,000.

The Chamber’s vice president of public policy, Rob Black, criticized the move toward municipalization because it would make San Francisco, like other municipal utilities, exempt from the state-mandated 20 percent renewable energy by 2010. “The Los Angeles utility is at 48 percent coal. That’s not green, that’s not renewable. That’s something we need to be very careful about,” he told the committee.

According to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, their power mix is actually 44 percent coal. But Black didn’t bother to check; he just took his figures from PG&E moments before, while conferring with Hernandez and Chiu. When questioned by the Guardian, Black said, “They didn’t come to me. I went to them.”

He reiterated the concern that municipally-owned power isn’t required by the state to be clean and green, and becoming so could increase rates. “If we’re creating cheaper energy, where’s the incentive to do conservation?” he asked.

According to statistics from the meeting, the average PG&E household spends $74.55 per month on electricity, with 12 percent of the energy used hailing from renewable resources. An equivalent customer in the Sacramento Municipal Utility District has a bill of $46.60 for 18 percent renewable.

APRI’s James Bryant said his Bayview community group has issues with the costs and the idea that former PG&E employees would be hired by the city and subsequently receive worse retirement plans.

When asked if he was there because his organization gets money from PG&E, Bryant said, “Not really.” He added, “I don’t have anything to do with their decisions. They don’t have anything to do with my decisions.

“Of all the amoral things PG&E does, they fund very worthy grassroots organizations and then lean on them to speak against things,” Sup. Tom Ammiano said when expressing his support for the legislation. “Not only is San Francisco going to have public power, the state of California is going to have public power.”

Other public comments overwhelmingly supported the measure. Some energy activists have been concerned that the legislation would derail or delay efforts to move toward renewables through the community choice aggregation (CCA) program.

Originally published July 2, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian