Question: What does the unquestionably left-leaning City of San Francisco and the more conservative farmers of Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon have in common?
Answer: Both know their communities are getting a raw deal from PG&E.
The City of San Francisco has started exploring in earnest how it would pencil out if they essentially bought out PG&E’s distribution system that serves the 885,000 residents of California’s fourth largest city as allowed under the state constitution.
Meanwhile the South San Joaquin Irrigation District that serves Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon is continuing its 16-year plus odyssey to do the same and are now neck high in legal maneuvering by PG&E in San Joaquin County Superior Court.
The question some have asked is the fight SSJID taking still worth it? The answer can be found 33 miles away where the territory of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District starts once Highway 99 passes across the county line and into the City of Galt.
As of March 1 of this year, SMUD customers were paying 32.7 percent less for the same amount of power than PG&E.
It was not always the case in Sacramento County. Back in 1923 convinced PG&E was taking advantage of people the for-profit based utility in San Francisco treated like country bumpkins, leaders in business, agriculture, and local government joined forces to take advantage of laws championed by Hiram Johnson — the governor who tamed the Southern Pacific Railroad monopoly that was choking small communities and even hindering large metro areas throughout the state — to give the people through local government the ability to not be at the mercy of Wall Street driven utilities that put profits above people.
PG&E, just like they are doing today to SSJID, responded with all of their legal might. It is not a joke to say PG&E has more lawyers on staff than SSJID has employees. Toss in high-powered and high-priced attorneys PG&E has deployed just like they did to fight SMUD and you have a classic David vs. Goliath battle with overtures of looking out for the economically stressed versus those that are in it for fat PG&E bonuses and massive profit returns for Wall Street investment firms.
It took SMUD 23 years to prevail after PG&E exhausted every legal maneuver and shenanigan they could pull. Ask a SMUD costumer who pays $100 a month for the same amount of electricity that someone in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon pay $137 a month if it was worth it.
By living in non-PG&E territory in Northern California the SMUD customers referenced above paid $444 less a year for electricity. That is not chump change.
PG&E tried mightily to discredit independent firms that analyze energy companies that they recommended government agencies hire to make sure SSJID wasn’t blowing smoke with their economic analysis that showed they were capable of delivering cheaper power in a safe and effective manner.
Keep in mind PG&E blew through $1 million that its ratepayers funded to set up a Stop the Power Grab organization that had a storefront operation in downtown Manteca on Yosemite Avenue. This is the same company that could call itself We Grab Land for Profit by using eminent domain powers granted to them by the state with the same frequency that some drink coffee.
This is the same company that lied to the California Legislature that they would help local irrigation districts get into the retail power business in exchange for the necessary votes to deregulate state power that led to ballooning PG&E bills and rolling brownouts. They then turned around and replicated the Lucy vs Charlie Brown football kicking act by working with the SSJID to make it work and then pulled the rug out from under the deals being fashioned not once but three times. This is the same PG&E that hired a political consulting firm that hacked into SSJID computers and stole documents sensitive to the SSJID takeover bid that PG&E came to possess. After repeatedly denying that to be the case, once the FBI started to launch an investigation they quickly reached a settlement with SSJID while proclaiming no wrongdoing as they delivered a $240,000 check to SSJID to cover damages.
PG&E’s track record with San Francisco’s efforts to escape the clutches of PG&E is more of the same. PG&E was nailed several times during elections conducted to gain voter approval to proceed with a takeover of their system with fines by the Fair Political Practices Commission for breaking various state campaign laws.
Imagine that, PG&E not playing fair or by the rules.
SSJID stands by the numbers they have out that they will be able to lower power costs to customers across the board by 15 percent out of the gate. Why they are so confident of that number has everything to do with their bond rating, the expertise they have at generating and selling hydroelectricity to PG&E via the Tri-Dam Project partnership with Oakdale Irrigation District for more than 55 years, the fact they don’t have brass in corner offices pulling down a combined compensation in excess of $20 million annually, or that they have to satisfy Wall Street investment firms that view low double digit profits as unacceptable. The analysis showed the SSJID could approach 30 percent in savings.
But since the SSJID board has to answer to their neighbors and the community and not Wall Street types they want to make sure they can deliver on promises while making sure the system is modern, safe and reliable. The 15 percent rate reduction is an under sell designed not to over promise and to make sure they can deliver.
The California Public Utilities Commission in 2009 concluded SSJID was not only capable of delivering on its commitments to provide effective, reliable and safe service but that the loss of the 72,000 acres that encompasses the SSJID would not impact the rates of those who would remain as PG&E customers.
Remember this comes from the consumer watchdog agency known as the CPUC that purred like a kitten every time PG&E in the past asked for anything it wanted to do.
Based on the SMUD case, it takes 23 years to break free of PG&E once you take the official step, offer a fair market price for the distribution system that serves a particular area and then fight the gauntlet of PG&E playing power politics and throwing every conceivable legal roadblock in your path until a new public power company is up and running.
If it takes another seven years for the SSJID to prevail, acquire the local system and set up its own retail operations it will be well worth it.
It will mean if you pay $100 a month for electricity you will pocket $150 a year in savings. Districtwide that will free up more than $12 million annually for families to use for other needs, businesses to cut costs, and for schools to free up more money for classrooms.
The CPUC is currently studying whether some or all of the PG&E’s 70,000 square miles of electric service territory should be served by a public agency.
There is at least one public agency that is ready and well positioned to show the rest of PG&E’s 16 million customers what life can be without having the state protected monopoly making investors on Wall Street immensely rich.