Fighting dirty

As Clean Power SF gets underway, public officials and renewal energy advocates brace for PG&E "thuggery"

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rebeccab@sfbg.com

One by one, representatives from California local governments who had gone toe-to-toe with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. recounted their war stories. They were weary, fatigued, and uncertain of the future. Their resources had been depleted by hefty legal expenses, and they were forever caught up in the game of trying to undo the damage of misinformation campaigns whipped up against them by PG&E. None had ever suspected that following state law would be so arduous.

At a Nov. 8 hearing of the California Senate Select Committee on Renewable Energy, held in San Rafael, officials from the San Joaquin Valley, Marin County, and San Francisco spoke about challenges they faced trying to initiate community choice aggregation (CCA) programs, which would create alternative electricity providers to PG&E.

In accordance with Assembly Bill 117, which allows local governments to purchase power in bulk and distribute it to a customer base using the infrastructure and billing systems operated by investor-owned utilities, representatives from local government agencies said they pursued CCAs to bolster local economies and benefit the environment — but quickly fell prey to fierce marketing campaigns.

So far, PG&E hasn't faced any real consequences for trying to derail its competitors using unethical and sometimes illegal tactics, and the director of the California Public Utilities Commission, Paul Clanon, did not commit to imposing fines or sanctions against the company.

 

COOPERATING FULLY

Despite a requirement under AB117 that utilities must "cooperate fully" with CCA implementation, agency representatives testified that PG&E consistently tried to obstruct their success. The San Joaquin Valley Joint Power Authority's CCA effort was suspended after a protracted legal battle, and has yet to be revisited.

At the hearing, Sen. Mark Leno listened attentively and offered sympathetic words of encouragement. "It is a superhuman accomplishment that you are even here with us today," he jested after Dawn Weisz, interim director of the Marin Energy Authority (MEA), finished describing a litany of tactics the monolithic utility employed against Marin's CCA.

Marin's experience may foreshadow what's in store for San Francisco. CleanPower SF, the city's CCA program, is picking up steam again after an initial attempt to hire a contractor failed to yield an acceptable agreement. On Nov. 5, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) announced it had received four responses to a second RFP for an electricity service provider to administer the city's CCA.

Already San Francisco has weathered some attacks. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who chairs the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) and has been a key figure in moving CCA forward, characterized Marin and San Francisco as "brothers and sisters in arms," saying, "We would share what we knew of what we could expect, because we were no strangers to these tactics."

Weisz noted that early on, PG&E sent lobbyists to meet privately with local elected officials. Soon after, the company upped the ante with a negative marketing campaign, distributing mailers that contained misleading information about the program. Their activity prompted a rebuke — but no fines — from the CPUC. "I sent PG&E a letter to say knock it off," Clanon said at the hearing.

PG&E also set up a phone-banking operation to dial up every prospective CCA customer in Marin County and encourage them to opt out of the program and used false information to persuade customers to stick with PG&E service, Weisz charged. "Many were led to believe that their lights wouldn't go on if they didn't opt out," she said.