Ballot initiative could pull the plug on alternative energy

December 8, 2009 7:39:20 PM PST
PG&E is spending millions to get a measure on the ballot next June. It's an initiative that would make it tougher for local power cooperatives to compete with Pacific Gas & Electric.

These local city councils and local governments are allowed by a law passed in 2002 to buy electrical power on their own from generators other than the big utility companies. The law says they can, but in the past seven years it's never happened.

Inside the Marin Civic Center, representatives from Marin County communities have formed a new agency called the Marin Energy Authority. The group wants to buy renewable power from wind farms, solar plants and geothermal electrical generators. It is a move that would double the amount of green power provided by PG&E.

"Turns out the big utilities have been a nightmare to do business with for a lot of the wind and solar generators out there in the market place," said Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan.

McGlashan says the Marin Energy Authority is ready to ink a contract at no additional cost to its customers.

PG&E would continue to deliver the electricity and collect the bills. But California law allows local community governments to join together in so-called community choice aggregations to contract directly with power generators.

"In our case in Marin and San Francisco, we want to do that to dramatically increase the use of renewable," said McGlashan.

But the deal means $94 million a year Marin pays PG&E for power generation would go to other power generators, and PG&E is fighting it.

"The risk in getting into the energy business is a fluctuating energy market. Getting into the business of procurement with very complicated power purchase agreements is a complicated business and really undermining all of that is the risk to customers with price fluctuations and just meeting supply," said PG&E Spokesperson Katie Romans.

Romans points to a Marin civil grand jury report released this week where the grand jury said to "pull the plug" and that the clean energy program is unproven and risky and adds a new layer of government.

The Marin Energy Authority says the agency is new but will be paid for by rate payers without increasing electricity bills. Any customer would be free to opt out of the deal at any time.

PG&E hired former state assemblyman Joe Nation to talk local city councils out of joining the energy authority. Nation declined ABC7's request for an interview.

For months, PG&E has been funding signature-gatherers to qualify a measure on the June ballot that would require cities to get a two-thirds approval from voters before joining an effort to compete with the power company.

"If there's one thing that's gotten California into the mess we're in is two-thirds majority votes," said State Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.

Sen. Leno says the two-thirds vote requirement is too high a standard and would kill any community-based competition, and McGlashan agrees.

"The ballot measure basically is a monopoly protection act," said McGlashan.

Greg Larson is a political consultant working to get the measure on the ballot.

"Voters in California will approve measures if they're properly drafted and put together in their interest," he said.

Larsen says between 2002 and 2008 roughly 600 local measures requiring a two-thirds vote were placed on ballots in California.

"Just a little bit less than half of those measures were approved by a two-thirds vote. If a measure is well drafted, the voters will approve it," said Larsen.

Larsen's numbers are accurate as far as they go, but his comparison doesn't hold up for measures that face opposition from a deep pockets opponent. Add significant money into the mix and the number of measures able to pass that two-thirds, it's pretty small.

And PG&E has shown it's willing to spend significant money to block community aggregation. The utility is the sole funder of the ballot measure, contributing $3 million so far to make sure it gets on the ballot next June.


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