Thomas Elias: PG&E, utility troubles could be a consumer opportunity
Jog your memory back just nine years to 2010 and you’ll find California’s Big Three privately-owned electric utilities spending more than $70 million – $46 million from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. alone – trying to pass a ballot proposition making it almost impossible to create new publicly-owned utilities.
Imagine the outcry today if PG&E and its allies at Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. spent that kind of money on a measure designed to keep their monopolies intact.
All three have been implicated in the ignition of several of the largest wildfires in California history, causing tens of billions of dollars in damage to their customers. So the outcry against any repeat of the big-money utility company effort to pass the 2010 Proposition 16 – it failed – would come not only from consumers, but also from victims of fires admittedly started by the electric firms’ equipment, who see any utility spending for political donations or lobbying as essentially theft. It would take money away from the cash reservoir available to compensate victims.
The utility company effort of nine years ago aimed to require a two-thirds public vote before any new Community Choice Aggregations could be started. Such a huge margin would be virtually unattainable, the utilities knew.
If that measure had passed, it’s doubtful places as diverse as Marin County and Manhattan Beach, San Francisco and Simi Valley would have the CCAs now serving them. These publicly-owned electricity suppliers buy power where they want, then transmit it back to their customers on power lines owned by the utilities.
The results include far greater use of renewable energy in California than before, lower prices in many places, and lower utility company revenues.
It’s that last item that the big regional power companies fearfully anticipated. Because they are publicly-owned, CCAs don’t pay or pass through the same taxes as other utilities. So even if the juice they use costs them a tad more, it ends up costing most consumers a bit less, besides being better for the environment and the planet.
What’s more, the utilities will never be bankrupted by this, as PG&E has declared it will be by its own negligence in power line maintenance and wildfire prevention.
The biggest of the CCAs resulting from Proposition 16’s failure is the Clean Power Alliance of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, which serves their unincorporated areas, plus 31 cities. More can join if they wish.
The first invoices from that brand new CCA went to customers within the last few weeks. These invoices include power transmission charges from Southern California Edison, with all the funds collected via Edison’s existing billing system.
A typical invoice shows the majority of the money charged still goes to Edison, even under the CCA’s most expensive option, which uses power drawn exclusively from renewable sources like solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric dams.
But the debut of the Clean Power Alliance and other CCAs was delayed by onerous rules set up two years ago by the state Public Utilities Commission, which has long done what it could to aid the companies it’s supposed to regulate. One rule passed in 2017 set up new, higher levies on CCA customers as a way to compensate utilities for their expenses in building power plants – which customers already fund via their rates.
But neither the PUC nor the utilities are now focused on CCAs, obsessed instead with lawsuits both filed and anticipated in the wake of the massive Camp, Thomas, Woolsey and other hugely damaging fires of the last two years.
Especially with a new top management and board of directors coming to the largest of the utilities, PG&E, this change in their concerns creates an opening for new CCAs like the one now desired by San Diego and its Republican mayor, Kevin Faulconer.
It’s small consolation, especially to burned out homeowners, but this could mean there will eventually be some long-term consumer benefit after all from California’s vast firestorms.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit http://www.californiafocus.net.
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