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News + PoliticsSF could lead the way on public power for California

SF could lead the way on public power for California

Lafco hearing sets the stage for a new effort to replace private utilities, in the city and statewide.

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The SF Local Agency Formation Commission held a hearing today on the failures of PG&E—and set in motion what could be a valuable process for moving toward public power.

The speakers at the hearing were clear and direct: As Antonio Diaz, organizational director at PODER, told the panel, “PG&E is a failed utility.”

While energy prices keep going up, he said, and shutoffs endanger people with disabilities and communities of color, PG&E’s chief executive officer made $50 million in 2021.

Almost everyone in SF agrees it’s time for SF to take over PG&E’s facilities; can it be a statewide effort?

“PG&E’s failures are hurting our health,” he said.

Jonathan Kline, senior auditor with the California State Auditor’s Office, talked about the report his office did last spring that showed in detail how PG&E has failed to protect the state from wildfires—and how the state has failed to hold the utility accountable.

Mari Rose Taruc, an organizer with Reclaim our Power, noted that during PG&E’s bankruptcy in 2019, state Sen. Jerry Hill managed to get passed a bill that created a plan for a public takeover if the utility didn’t manage to survive. SB 350 set up the potential for a nonprofit Golden State Energy system—but only if PG&E never emerged as a viable company or if the state Public Utilities Commission decided to revoke its license to operate.

PG&E emerged from bankruptcy, and the CPUC has shown no signs of making any effort to push public power in California.

But Golden State Energy is still out there, albeit it with no staff or budget, and Taruk noted that it offers a potential path to creating alternatives to PG&E.

Jackie Fielder, the chair of Lafco, introduced a resolution directing the agency’s executive officer to study what would be involved in San Francisco leading the way on a statewide effort to activate Golden State Energy. It passed.

The could lead to a much larger study on statewide public power—although it might require resources beyond San Francisco, say the state Legislative Analysts’ Office, to do that work.

I have no illusions that Gov. Gavin Newsom, his CPUC, or the current state Legislature will do anything meaningful to challenge PG&E. But the LAO could potentially do a study.

Meanwhile, of course, San Francisco could take steps at any time to enforce the Raker Act and take over PG&E’s system.

I spoke to Taruk this afternoon, and she agreed that it will be difficult to get the governor or the Legislature to move against PG&E; even the San Francisco delegation approved an extension of the nuclear license at Diablo Canyon.

But she also agreed with me on an important point: Public power in California could be done at a regional level, with local control.

San Francisco already has a public-power agency, and could not only take over PG&E’s local system but potentially provide power to the more than a  million customers on the Peninsula who currently buy water from the city.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District already supplies water to 1.4 million customers; it could add the infrastructure to deliver power. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District already delivers lower cost power with a strong renewable portfolio to 1.5 million customers, and could take over PG&E’s system in the surrounding area.

In other words, there’s a way to build public power in the state on a regional basis, even if the governor and the Legislature won’t take on the private utilities.

“Today was hopeful,” Taruk said.

But for anything real to happen, San Francisco will have to lead the way.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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