PUC solar secrecy stinks
Imagine the public outcry if the legislature suddenly raised future taxes on most Californians and then said no one would know the amount until the tax bill arrived. Fury would follow.
Yet there is no outcry when the state Public Utilities Commission does exactly the same thing.
Hikes in electric rates are just like taxes: You pay or severe consequences follow. Ignore your electric bill and the lights go out.
The latest act of secrecy by the five-member PUC came in mid-November when it approved a contract under which PG&E will annually buy 617 gigawatt hours of electricity from the yet-to-be-built Mojave Solar development in the high desert of San Bernardino County. That’s enough juice to power a medium-sized city.
The development is similar to others in the desert region that will provide power to Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. All are part of the state’s drive to produce about one-third of its electricity from renewable sources before the end of this decade.
In none of the cases have utility customers been told how much they’ll pay for each solar kilowatt hour. All we know is that, short of installing rooftop solar panels, the greener power becomes, the more it will cost. For the most part, the big projects are backed by federal loan guarantees totaling almost $10 billion.
The secrecy seems most egregious in the case of Mojave Solar, owned by the Spanish firm Abengoa Solar, which has a $1.4 billion loan guarantee. The PUC has publicly said energy from Mojave Solar will cost consumers at least double the price of power from a conventional gas-fired generating station. Will that be 2.5 times as much or 200 times as much? We don’t know.
The PUC cites a 2005 rule as the reason for its secrecy. That rule allows price confidentiality to last between three and five years when it’s “essential to avoid a repetition of electricity market manipulation” like what caused the energy crunch of 2001-02.
But it’s hard to see how disclosing the price of solar thermal power from massive developments covering thousands of desert acres could cause market manipulation.
“I can’t understand how that follows,” said Leonard Snaider, a retired PUC staff lawyer who also served as a deputy L.A. city attorney specializing in utility rate cases. “Nope, it can’t cause market manipulation. So this has an odor.”
The real explanation for the secrecy plainly lies in the realms of public policy and public anger. “The pricing will be so outrageous that I think it’s not politically prudent to reveal the real costs,” said Snaider.
Hinting that this assessment is correct was the statement of PUC member Mike Florio, a consumer advocacy lawyer who said he voted against Mojave Solar because, “We would be better off paying the developer back the $70 million it has already spent rather than take on the enormous costs of this project.”
If the PUC has its way, the public won’t find out what those costs are, and how much they will have too pay to cover them, until the new plants are a fait accompli and large new charges begin appearing on their monthly bills. That is simply wrong.