SAN FRANCISCO — Efforts in California to develop community choice aggregation as an alternative path to public power have been slow to get off the ground.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the major investor-owned utility in Northern California, is doing its best to keep it that way.
Last week, Secretary of State Debra Bowen certified a ballot measure — financed entirely by PG&E — designed to make it more difficult for local governments or agencies to implement community choice aggregation, or for municipal utilities to expand their territories through annexation. It will appear on the state’s June primary ballot.
State lawmakers created the CCA regulatory structure in 2002 to encourage public agency investments in power and power generation, without requiring agencies to go through the process of acquiring privately held electricity assets.
The public entities that form CCA arrangements are authorized to buy power and build their own power generation, while delivering electricity to customers through the existing grid of the investor-owned utilities, which would deliver power to customers’ doors and be paid regulated rates for doing so.
If voters approve the June ballot initiative, public agencies will be required to submit a ballot measure to local voters and win a two-thirds majority to provide electricity for a community choice program, to provide electricity to new customers, or to expand to new territories, “if any public funds or bonds are involved.”
CCA plans typically presume the use of tax-exempt bonds, particularly for building their own power generation. For example, the most recent business plan of the Marin Energy Authority, which is working to implement a CCA program in Marin County, presumes issuance of $375 million of bonds in 2012 or 2013 to finance renewable electricity generation projects.
PG&E has contributed at least $3.5 million to the campaign to qualify the ballot measure, money used for paid signature gatherers who collected more than 694,354 valid voters’ signatures. The campaign has no other reported contributors.
“PG&E is trying to subvert the law that expressly allows communities to choose alternatives to its high rates, dirty power, and frequent blackouts,” said Mark Foley, executive director of CCA advocates the Utility Reform Network, said in a statement after the ballot measure qualified.
Andrew Souvall, a PG&E spokesman, described it as simply a good-government measure.
“PG&E supports giving our customers more control over how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent,” he said. “This is a complex and risky business and we believe taxpayers should have a voice on whether local governments take on that risk.”
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera cited PG&E’s role in the ballot measure this week, when he petitioned the California Public Utilities Commission for regulations to prohibit PG&E and other private utilities from engaging in marketing campaigns “and other abuses of their monopoly position” to undermine CCA plans.
San Francisco and the Marin Energy Agency are separately working to create CCA programs in their jurisdictions, with the stated aim of providing power to consumers while increasing the use of renewable energy generation.
A group of governments in the Central Valley, operating through the San Joaquin Valley Power Authority, had taken the lead in efforts to establish community choice aggregation, but announced last June that it was suspending its efforts, citing reasons that include tight credit markets, volatile energy markets, an uncertain regulatory environment — and the organized opposition of PG&E.