Now: full-speed ahead with CCA

Pub date June 9, 2010

EDITORIAL Proposition 16 — Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s monopoly power grab — has to rank as the most venal, corrupt abuse of the initiative system in California history. The utility spent nearly $50 million to pay for a misleading signature drive, mount a campaign of lies and distortions, create bogus front groups, and flood the airwaves with ads — all in an effort to convince Californians to vote against their own interests. It’s a case study in why the state needs initiative reform (a ban on paid signature gatherers and limits on corporate campaign contributions would be good places to start).

At press time, we didn’t know how the election would turn out — but this much is clear: San Francisco needs to move ahead with community choice aggregation and continue to push for public power anyway.

Prop. 16 was never about "taxpayer rights." The whole point of the initiative was to block communities from replacing PG&E with public power. But it’s too late to stop San Francisco. Thanks to heroic efforts by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, the city has already reached a deal with Power Choice LLC to create and operate a CCA system in town. Under state law, every resident and business in the city is automatically a customer of the CCA unless they opt out — so Prop. 16, which bars public-power agencies from signing up new customers, doesn’t apply.

It was a battle royal to get to this point. The PG&E-friendly San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, operating under a PG&E-friendly mayor, had more than a year to find a vendor and negotiate a contract. But PUC General Manager Ed Harrington dragged his feet at every turn. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Harrington tried to delay the contract until after the June election — thus giving PG&E a better shot at invalidating any contract. But with enough pressure from the supervisors, the basic terms of the deal were sealed in plenty of time.

Besides, San Francisco is in a unique position. Federal law (the Raker Act) requires the city to operate a public power system — and that act of Congress would trump any state law.

So the supervisors should move forward on finalizing the CCA, Mayor Gavin Newsom should sign off on it, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera should prepare to defend it vigorously if PG&E tries to sue.

Herrera has told us repeatedly that he thinks the city’s legal position is sound. In the past, he’s refused to use the Raker Act as a legal strategy — to go to court and force his own city to follow the law — but he needs to be ready to use that powerful weapon if PG&E tries to interfere with the implementation of CCA.

City officials at every level also have to make a concerted effort to counter PG&E’s lies — particularly the sort of misinformation that made it into the Matier and Ross column in the Chron June 7, the day before the election. Quoting unnamed sources, the reporters insisted that San Francisco CCA’s electricity rates would be higher than PG&E’s. That’s only true if you ignore the fact that PG&E’s rates are unstable and going up every year and that the cost of alternative energy is coming down every year — and if you don’t consider the costs of climate change, oil spills, coal mining disasters, nuclear waste storage, and all the other impacts of PG&E’s nonrenewable energy mix. And remember: San Francisco is asking the CCA to provide 51 percent renewables by 2019; PG&E’s portfolio doesn’t even meet the state’s weak 15 percent requirement. (There is also, of course, the multibillion dollar risk that San Francisco could lose the Hetch Hetchy dam if the city continues to violate the Raker Act.)

But the private utility that spent gobs of money on the Prop. 16 campaign will spend millions more in San Francisco to convince customers to opt out of the CCA. So the city needs its own campaign to explain why public power is not only much greener, but in the long run, much, much cheaper.

San Francisco has had a mandate for public power since 1913, nearly 100 years. The implementation of CCA would be a big step toward fulfilling that mandate. The supervisors should not let anything stand in the way.