Megan Rawlins

The $2.8 billion rate hike


In the middle of what economists are calling the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, when California unemployment rates have hit post-WWII records, commercial defaults are rising, and families and businesses are hurting, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is asking for electricity rate hikes that would take at least $47 million out of the local community, a Guardian analysis shows. By some estimates, the impact could be has high as $787 million.

And the economy is already losing between $174 million and $483 million a year because the city hasn’t created a public power system. So the total impact on the San Francisco economy of paying PG&E’s high private rates could total $2.8 billion. That’s money that local residents can’t spend on good and services, local businesses can’t use to hire more workers and city government can’t collect taxes on.

The analysis is based on work done in 2002 by Irwin Kellner, chief economist for Marketwatch and a former economics professor at Hofstra University. Kellner analyzed the savings to the Long Island economy after that community replaced a private utility with a public power system (see "The $620 million shakedown, 9/4/2002).

It’s not a complicated set of calculations.

During the fiscal year ending in 2009, San Francisco residents and businesses paid $644 million on electricity, according to data from the city’s Controller’s Office. If PG&E’s proposed 6.5 percent average rate hike is approved for 2011 (with additional hikes of 1.4 percent and 1.1 percent the following two years) that number would ultimately rise to $704.5 million.

Over the next four years, as those rate hikes kick in, San Franciscans would be handing PG&E an extra $157 million. That’s $106 million businesses won’t have to pay employees or make capital improvements, and $51.3 million consumers won’t have to spend in local businesses.

"That’s $51 million less that would otherwise go into San Francisco neighborhood businesses," said Ted Egan, chief economist in the city’s Office of Economic Analysis. "Instead the $51 million goes to PG&E, and they won’t spend it all in San Francisco. Some will go to shareholders and outside the region, so the rate hike would end up having a larger impact than the initial $51 million."

That "larger impact" is called the multiplier effect: if you give one dollar to someone likely to spend it locally, he or she will buy shoes at a local shoe store, whose owner will use the dollar to buy groceries at the local grocery store, whose owner will pay the counter worker, who will spend the money on paint at the local hardware store — and by the time it’s circulated through the local economy, that dollar has created far more than a dollar’s worth of economic activity.

Economists argue on how to figure the exact impact of that dollar. Kellner has done studies of the economic impact of utility rates and estimates the multiplier — the economic impact of electricity rate hikes — to be five, expanding the $157.4 million to over $787 million.

Egan takes a more conservative view of the San Francisco economy and consumer spending. He estimates that the multiplier for utility rate hikes is closer to 0.3 — or slightly higher when commercial rates are factored in. According to his estimate the impact would be closer to $47,231,083.86.

The multiplier suggested by federal government economists during the stimulus bill discussion is 1.8, the number cautiously posited by Cynthia Kroll, senior regional economist for the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at UC Berkeley. Based on her calculations, PG&E would be yanking $283 million out of the local economy.

Either way, it’s a huge sum of money, particularly in a bad economy.


This latest rate hike, Mindy Spatt, communications director of the Utility Reform Network told us, is only part of a pattern of attempts by PG&E to raise rates. Every three years, utility companies present a general rate case to the California Public Utilities Commission. But Spatt said utilities can come to the PUC in between to ask for other rate hikes.

"They’re constantly coming back to the commission for this that and the other thing," she said. "[PG&E] came back after they got money for smart meters to get money for smarter meters.

"Overall, the pattern is that rates continue to go up," she continued. "The only other thing going up is executive compensation. We are still plagued with blackouts, we still get crappy service."

She’s right: data from other local utilities show that PG&E rates are anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent higher than cities that have public power. PG&E would like its customers to believe that higher rates will improve service and reliability — but that’s not what’s happening.

"They don’t spend the money on giving us good service, instead [they focus] on convincing us they are giving us good service," Spatt said.

In its announcement of the proposed hike, PG&E claimed the rate hikes are to maintain infrastructure and reliability. A further $1.1 billion is also being asked for as part of a Cornerstone Improvement Project to increase reliability.

"Reliability" is an old battle horse trotted out every few years as the justification for rate hikes. PG&E is consistently less reliable than other local utilities and even less reliable than other large private utilities. So the company constantly asks for money to upgrade its system — except that reliability doesn’t seem to improve much, and it hasn’t improved much in the past decade, according to California Public Utilities Commission data.

"It’s interesting to compare their rates to municipal utilities and how much higher they are," Spatt said. "What do we get for the extra money we pay? Because by most measures they’re not doing a great job."

In fact, Guardian research shows that local municipal utilities have consistently better reliability records than PG&E (see "The blackout factor," 8/5/09).


The direct cost of PG&E’s high rates costs the local economy — and those losses are compounded by the money that could have been saved with public power.

A detailed Guardian analysis concluded last year that San Francisco would be able to cut electric rates by 15 percent if it ran its own utility (see "Cleaner and cheaper," 9/10/2008). That’s an entirely reasonable estimate, according to Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which is fighting with PG&E to take over electricity distribution in its service area. He projects similar savings for his customers.

Shields thinks his system (and one in San Francisco) could cut rates even further. As nonprofit, he explained, SSJID can save money in multiple areas and pass those savings onto customers.

"We don’t pay taxes on earnings," he told us. "PG&E, as a shareholder company, can collect an 11.45 percent margin of profit. We don’t pay that. We don’t have the same overhead. We don’t have high-rises or corporate jets."

Public power agencies pay less to borrow money, are eligible for tax-exempt financing, typically have a higher credit rating and often keep a substantial cash reserve.

"[Selling electricity] will continue to produce substantial income," he said. "As a nonprofit, the only thing we can do with that income is continue to drop rates."

Other municipal utilities, like Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara, have been able to keep rates low as PG&E has continued to raise rates. Larry Owens, customer services manager at SVP, said its residential rates are half of PG&E’s, and less for larger users.

The opportunity cost of not having municipal power — factoring in PG&E’s proposed rate hike and the assumption, based on Guardian and SSJID analyses, that rates would be lowered by at least 15 percent — is approximately $545 million over the next four years. Theoretically, that money could have resulted in a $980 million to $2.8 billion bump in the local economy.

This doesn’t include what some municipal utilities call "general fund transfers" or money that goes directly into a city’s piggy bank to be spent on libraries, schools, public health, and other services.

"Private sector utilities pay money to shareholders," said Joyce Kinnear, utility marketing services manager in Palo Alto. "We give these payments to the general fund to give services to local residents."

In Palo Alto’s case, this amounts to more than $9.25 million annually, or 9 percent of annual sales revenue, according Ipek Connolly, senior resource planner for the Palo Alto Utilities Department. Alameda Municipal Power’s Alan Hanger says AMP pays at least $4.2 million into city coffers. Silicon Valley Power, according to Owens, sends 5 percent of its revenue back to the city in the form of $12.92 million.

Shields, at SSJID, said the utility plans to give 4 percent of revenue to a public benefits program for "various social services, conservation, and energy efficiency programs." This, in addition to general fund transfers, constitutes a direct contribution to the community 50 percent larger than PG&E’s.

"Public power systems provide a direct benefit to their communities in the form of payments and contributions to state and local government," Nicholas Braden, director of communications at the American Public Power Association, told us. "The total value of the contributions made by the publicly-owned utilities often comes in many forms and is not always easily recognized. In addition to payments such as taxes, payments in lieu of taxes, and transfers to the general funds, many of the utilities make other contributions in the form of free or reduced cost services provided to states and cities."

San Francisco has a 7.5 percent utility user tax, but the tax is only levied on homes and businesses. In other words, PG&E takes hundreds of millions out of the local economy — and gives back nothing.



Amount San Franciscans paid for electricity IN 2009: $644 million

Additional cost of PG&E rate hike (per year): $157 million

Multiplier (maximum estimate): $787 million

Reduction in costs under public power: $483 million

Multiplier: $2.1 billion

Total impact of high PG&E rates: $2.87 billion

SOURCE: Guardian research based on public records



Pacific Gas and Electric Co. estimates that its current rate hike proposal will add between $2.23 and $16.76 per month to an average residential electricity bill. That may not seem huge — but it adds up.

"Each rate hike in and of itself isn’t that much money," acknowledges Mindy Spatt of the Utility Reform Network (TURN). "But overall, rates are very high."

And if you’re in one of the 24,000 San Francisco families that, according to U.S. census data, livie in poverty, even the smallest increase in utility bills can have serious ramifications.

"A few dollars here, and a few there can really affect low-income households," said Stephanie Chen, legal fellow at the Greenlining Institute, a public policy research and advocacy group. "It can mean the difference between ‘Do I pay the power bill, or do I buy groceries?’"

Utility bills are not a discretionary expense, and, as unemployment continues to rise and adjustable rate mortgages continue to adjust upward, more households are finding themselves squeezed on all sides. Depending on timing and cash flow, Chen said it would be easy to imagine a formerly stable household unable to pay the utility bill.

And if a household can’t pay the bill for two weeks, PG&E sends a notice of termination and shuts off power. According to Spatt, PG&E shuts off 15,000 households in its service area each month.

"Rate hikes are certainly not going to bring down that number," she said. "These are not people who can’t pay for a Mercedes and got it repossessed. They are people who are losing heat, electricity, the ability to cook."

To turn the power back on, PG&E requires a deposit of twice the average bill to reestablish credit. If a household can’t pay its regular bill, paying twice the amount is even harder.

Spatt says TURN is working to push the CPUC to do something about this and help consumers who are struggling. Chen says utility companies already know their customers are hurting during the recession.

"All the utilities are facing decaying infrastructure concerns and renewable energy goals," Chen said. "They are facing increased costs, which they pass on to ratepayers. We know rate increases are inevitable — but we want to make sure they are necessary and cost-effective."

Fewer young people using drugs


Opposition to drug use is often couched in concern about children, but today’s kids are using fewer drugs than in the past. And, according to a survey of risky behavior, San Francisco’s young people are using fewer drugs than those nationally.

The San Francisco Unified School District, in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, surveys its high school students biannually to asses drug use, eating and exercise habits, and other possibly risky behavior.

Over the last 12 years, alcohol has been the most frequently abused substance among San Francisco high school students and usage rates have held fairly steady, dropping from 59.2 percent to 53.2 percent for one-time use, and from 27.5 percent to 22.3 percent for habitual use. The corresponding national rates have dropped from 79.1 percent to 75 percent and from 50.8 percent to 44.7.

Yet more people are seeking help for marijuana use than alcoholism. According to the Community Behavioral Health Services division of the city’s Department of Public Health, 36 percent of young people receiving substance abuse treatment are marijuana users and only 21 percent are treated for alcohol abuse.

The higher rates of treatment could explain the large decline in marijuana use since 1997.

The number of students who have tried marijuana dropped from 33 percent to 22.8 percent, and habitual use has dropped from 17.1 percent to 11.4 percent. This mirrors the national trend in which rates dropped from 47.1 percent to 38.1 percent and from 26.2 to 19.7 percent for lifetime and habitual use, respectively.

The decline in marijuana use is only surpassed by that of cigarette abuse, which has dropped by almost half from 60 percent to 36.5 percent for lifetime use and from 19.1 percent to 8 percent for habitual use.

A current year study, which does not include trend data, shows that rates of cocaine, methamphetamines, and steroid use are below the national average, all hovering around 5 percent.

The surveys only collect data on illicit drug use and do not include the abuse of prescription drugs, which Jim Stillwell, manager of substance abuse service for the San Francisco Department of Health, said is on the rise.

They get pills from their parents, he said, and because they see adults take them, they don’t seem as risky.

The blackout factor


This chart shows how customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. face far more power outages than customers of any of the public power agencies in the Bay Area

Noel Birbeck makes signs. In a low, nondescript building tucked into a south of Market side street, a printing machine spits out personal greetings and corporate messages in all colors, shapes, and sizes.

Until the power goes out.

"We print things that are up to 50 feet long," said Birbeck, the business manager of Budget Signs. "If the power goes out at foot 35, we have to start the printing process all over and throw out all that time and money that went into the initial printing."

And that, unfortunately, has been happening far too often. In fact, a Guardian review of available data shows that customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. lose power much more frequently than customers of municipally-owned and operated utilities.

That costs money and harms the local business climate.

"[Any disruption] is a huge deal," Birbeck said. "If we’re in the middle of a deadline and a customer expects something at a certain time, that can cost Budget Signs a huge amount of money. No one is going to pay you for something that is only kinda done."

The last major outage cost Budget Signs more than $300 in employee and company time as Birbeck and her workers waited for the power to return. It’s a manageable amount, but she insists she can’t put a price on the inconvenience, the uncertainty, and the potential loss of business.

Reliable power is a basic requirement of most businesses. Restaurants and markets need refrigeration, factories need to power production lines, office buildings run large computing systems, retailers need to run cash registers, lights, and credit card machines. An unexpected power outage can cost San Francisco businesses thousands of dollars.

A 2001 study by the Electric Power Research Institute estimates the cost of power disruptions to California businesses is between $11.5 million and $17.8 million annually.

No utility can guarantee year-round power without disruptions, surges, brownouts, or severe weather-related outages. But reliability varies widely among California utilities.

PG&E breaks its service area into districts, and, according to reports it submits annually to the California Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco customers experienced an average of two hours of non-weather-related outages per year over the last six years. (Weather-related incidents are not reported at the district level.)

That’s better than the three-hour average across PG&E’s entire California service area. Still, PG&E customers in San Francisco lose power, on average, 2.5 times as often as customers of other Bay Area utilities.

The Palo Alto Utilities Department, Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara, Alameda Municipal Power, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District have dramatically better records, ranging from 82 minutes a year of outage time in Sacramento to only 16 minutes in Santa Clara — and these numbers include all weather-related events.

In other words, the municipal utilities deliver power more consistently and at considerably lower rates — even before factoring in PG&E’s impending rate hike of 3.3 percent to 5.4 percent.

"We consider any widespread blackout a major event," said Larry Owens, division manager at Silicon Valley Power. "Systems can be managed to minimize storm related events — we do [that]."


There are a number of reasons why these public power sources are more reliable than PG&E: size of the service area, age of the infrastructure, administration of the organization.

"The general concept is that the more complex the topography is and the older the urban areas are … the more unreliable the system is going to be," said Mark Loy, a ratepayer advocate at the CPUC.

"For PG&E there are negative powers of scale," he continued. "They are so large and spread out that being bigger actually makes things more difficult for them to fix. In San Francisco, the circuitry PG&E uses hasn’t even been mapped out in some places, so it is all haphazard and harder to keep on top of."

Public power agencies also have more incentive to invest in maintaining their infrastructure.

Patrick Valath, manager of electric engineering at the Palo Alto Utilities Department, attributes his city’s annual average of only 65 minutes of power disruption to an "aggressive and sustained infrastructure replacement program that is spread over many years."

Alameda Municipal Power’s Alan Hangar said the annual average of only 25 minutes of outage in that city is due to years of building stability and redundancy into the system.

Santa Clara is by far the most reliable utility company in the area, Owens said, and is often ranked second in the nation. "Our current operating philosophy is to load the system with only half of what it is capable of carrying," he said. "That allows us to switch a customer to another circuit quickly, so we restore their power and make repairs on our time, not their time."

He also noted that the vast majority of Santa Clara’s power lines are underground, making them far less susceptible to damage from storms, accidents, and other interference.

Municipal utilities have more freedom than investor-owned companies like PG&E to shift the focus away from profits, revenue, and shareholder returns toward quality and customer satisfaction.

"We are customer-driven," Owens said. "They repeatedly tell us that reliability is the No. 1 priority. The cost of power is second. We have some customers who say they lose $1 million a minute in an outage, and that by far trumps the cost they pay for energy."


Business owners don’t need studies to tell them they are losing money because of PG&E.

Arienne Landry, owner of Just for You Café in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, faced a blackout during lunch service at her café several months ago.

"The power was out for four or five hours," she said. "During that time I’m paying people to work, but I can’t serve customers without power. I probably lost a couple of grand in sales. It’s not a severe loss, but it takes a little while to catch up."

Birbeck of Budget Signs remembers a power disruption that occurred when she was in the middle of two large printing jobs. She and an employee returned to the shop at 10:30 p.m. after a neighbor alerted her that the power had returned. She said they worked through the night to complete the jobs on deadline.

"They were our two largest jobs for our two largest companies at the time," she said. "Both jobs were over $10,000. Potential loss of either or both of these companies would have been disastrous to a small company. I really couldn’t even put a price on it."

And the cost of an outage doesn’t stop at that initial business. If the power goes out at Birbeck’s sign shop and a sign doesn’t get finished and a deadline isn’t met, Birbeck might lose money or even a client. But that client might have needed that sign for a business event, and that business event may have needed that client … and the losses can go on and on.

Those ripples are larger and go farther in many high tech industries. Larry Owens of Silicon Valley Power said that consistent, reliable power is especially important for the high tech firms located in Santa Clara, including Applied Technologies, Inc., McAfee, Inc., and Intel Corp.

"There are some processes that require a 21-day burn in," he said. "If there is a power outage, they have to start all over again. An outage can cause a company to lose market share or dominance or preferred vendor status. It ripples out a long way."

Some companies have such sensitive systems that a drop in voltage for a mere fraction of a second can shut them down and require rebooting.

"Our customers have become power-quality sensitive," Larry Owens said. "It doesn’t take an outage to harm a business. A fault on a transmission line causes the whole system to dip, a voltage dip. If you have a heavy load, it knocks the voltage down for milliseconds. If it drops enough, companies’ systems drop out."

State Sen. Mark Leno is intimately familiar with the problem — he owns Budget Signs. And he has called on the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate the problem.

"As a San Francisco small business owner, I am personally aware of the lost business I experience as a result of PG&E’s performance failures," Leno said in a press release. A June 18 letter Leno sent to the CPUC noted: "As the commission considers PG&E’s request to upgrade its grid, I would ask you to include both an investigation of these problems and PG&E’s proposed solutions to them."

Almost a month later Michael R. Peevey, president of the CPUC, responded, arguing that PG&E’s reliability rate in 2008 was better in the previous few years. He also pointed out that the utility has a formal process for filing claims and that the commission has no authority over system reliability.

That, Leno said, is unacceptable. "From reading that letter, one would never know that the mission of the California PUC is to be the protector of the ratepayer," he told us. "The ratepayers are being badly served by PG&E and the CPUC."


In theory, state law requires PG&E to reimburse businesses for losses caused by blackouts. A business owner or manager can find the claim form on PG&E’s Web site or can call the claims office. Each case is assigned to one of the 21 claims investigators who cover the utility’s service area. With the help of supporting documents, investigators look into the occurrence, determine PG&E’s liability and the degree of monetary loss, and compensate the business accordingly. All, according the Web site, within an average of 30 days.

Emily Mitra, owner of Dosa, which operates Indian restaurants in the Mission District and the Fillmore District followed this process — and it wasn’t that simple.

On Dec. 18, 2008, a PG&E transformer blew and both locations of Dosa lost power. Mitra had to contend with food spoilage, staff costs, down equipment, lost business, all of which added up to about $12,000.

"We filed claims, but it was a long process," she said. "A check came for the Valencia Street location immediately but for the Fillmore location, PG&E didn’t even have record of an outage."

After three months of badgering PG&E to no avail, Mitra said she contacted Sup. Ross Mirkarimi’s office and the Small Business Commission.

"I was ready to sue them," she said. "I had dozens of witnesses, but that didn’t seem to faze them. It could have been a coincidence that they found the data right after we talked to the Small Business Commission. But it was a pretty quick turnaround after that."

A check arrived for the full amount of the claim. But Mitra couldn’t claim compensation for the time, energy, and frustration the claims process cost her over its three-month duration.

Birbeck told us PG&E never informed her that there was a formal claims process. "No one ever mentioned a claim to me — that has never been offered at all," she said. That’s a common complaint — although the forms are on PG&E’s Web site, the utility doesn’t widely promote or advertise that fact.

PG&E also asks business owners to provide a slew of paperwork ranging from tax records and bank statements to payroll records, revenue and expense statements, and sales receipts.

"We had to give them a lot of data," Mitra said. Because Dosa’s records are mostly digital and automated, supplying them to PG&E was the least of her problems. But, she conceded, "if you don’t run your business in a way that keeps all that data, it would be a pain in the ass."

Of course, the claims process does nothing to address issues of reliability. Neither does it guarantee that Mitra’s refrigerators won’t fail without notice, leaving her without food to serve.

It is, however, another reminder that San Francisco is not being well-served by its private utility monopoly.