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California Focus: Clean power expansion getting zapped?

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The California Public Utilities Commission giveth, but the same benighted agency much more often taketh away. At least from consumers.

In December, this five-member commission for the first time in many years stood up for utility customers by refusing to let the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. dun its customers for the costs of negligence in the leadup to massively destructive fires in 2007. At almost the same time, though, commissioners scheduled a vote that could allow the state’s three big privately-owned utilities to continue their regional monopolies almost unabated for at least another year.

The vote, set for the PUC’s first 2018 meeting on Jan. 11, would put at least a temporary halt to the establishment and/or expansion of Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) programs around the state. These programs allow cities or counties to let electricity customers choose whether to stick with the existing utilities or switch to a locally-run public entity that buys power from generating companies at the source and brings it to customers via utility company lines.

Nonprofit CCA prices are generally lower than those of the big for-profit utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and SDG&E. They also use more renewable energy.

Utilities see CCAs as a serious threat. Just how serious was evidenced when PG&E spent more than $46 million of its shareholders’ money pushing the unsuccessful 2010 Proposition 16 to halt almost all CCAs, only to see it lose badly even though opponents spent less than .02 percent as much as PG&E.

CCAs currently operate in places as diverse as Sonoma County, Lancaster, Richmond and Marin County. The biggest of all figures to be one in Los Angeles County, where residents and businesses in all unincorporated areas can now participate and 82 cities within the county can opt in if they choose. There is strong interest in CCAs from Ventura County, many of its cities, and the city of San Diego, plus pending CCAs in San Jose and several other cities. So it’s easy to see why the big utilities feel imperiled.

But if the PUC passes its proposed resolution on Jan. 11, much of that will halt for at least a year and maybe longer.

The resolution, reportedly proposed at the behest of the big, investor-owned utilities, forces CCAs to make arrangements to keep enough power for peak energy moments like record-hot summer days available at all times. They would also have to dovetail their planning with a schedule pre-set by the commission, which regulates energy prices and policy, transportation rates and some parts of cell phone and water policy.

So instead of opening or taking on new service areas and customers all through 2018, as many had planned, most CCAs would have to wait at least until 2019 to expand, if the big existing utilities don’t come up with some new tactic to delay them further.

The proposed resolution infuriated some cities that had planned to get aboard existing CCAs soon, hoping to take advantage of the CCAs’ emphasis on renewable energy sources to green up their power supply quickly. The resolution, said Kevin McKeown, a Santa Monica city councilman and board member of the Los Angeles County CCA, “appears to be a stealth attempt… to freeze new local Community Choice programs, including ours, for at least a year. Santa Monica will oppose this, fighting for cleaner and cheaper electricity for our residents and businesses by all means possible.”

He called for the PUC to pull “this regressive item off its… agenda.”

McKeown is correct about the stealth quality of the planned new restriction on CCAs. While a PUC press release underlines a claim that CCAs applying to start before last Dec. 8 would not be affected by the resolution, buried on Page 13 of the document itself is a stipulation saying it does in fact cover “expanding” CCAs. That provision would prevent existing CCAs from recruiting new cities, counties and customers for a year or more.

The bottom line: This planned new regulation is a plain attempt by the PUC to favor the big private utilities with which it has been documented to collude in the past over the consumers those companies frequently seek to soak.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.