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Monopoly Money

Can one utility block Marin's climate-protection efforts?

By Juliane Poirier

It's amazing what people will do for money. Woody Guthrie wrote "Roll On Columbia" for the Bonneville Power Administration in 1941. That was back when lyrics like "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn" might persuade a na´ve public to celebrate hydroelectric dams (the way cement contractors were undoubtedly celebrating them). It was a clever marketing strategy—for that era.

In this era of climate crisis, dumbing the public down takes a bit more than folk propaganda sung to the tune of "Goodnight Irene"; now it takes a well-funded confusion and fear campaign, similar to what PG&E has launched in Marin and aims to take all the way to the ballot in June. The utility wants to stop informed communities such as Marin—and other climate-protecting jurisdictions, including those in the San Joaquin Valley—from buying their own electricity through a Community Choice Aggregation plan.

Why? The new citizen-controlled power purchasing will not only replace dirty electricity with cleaner power, give Marin the authority to negotiate its own energy contracts and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the North Bay, but it will also divert millions of dollars from PG&E. No big surprise that the utility wants to keep jurisdictions out of the power-purchasing business.

Marin appears undaunted. So far, all cities in the county except Corte Madera, Novato and Larkspur have joined up to create a citizen-driven initiative to give people options. Ratepayers will be free to stay with the current PG&E product (85 percent nonrenewable energy from coal, nuclear, natural gas and large hydroelectric projects). Or participants may select from two renewable products to be offered by a new program, Marin Clean Energy: a Light Green product, between 25 and 50 percent renewable and increasing to 100 percent within seven years; and a Dark Green product already 100 percent renewable. The Light Green option will result in no additional charges to a ratepayer; the Dark Green option will cost a few dollars more for those who want to pay extra to help protect the climate. Marin Clean Energy will cut up to 500,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

And it will cut PG&E's profits. "This program," says Marin Energy Authority interim director Dawn Weisz, "will take about $94 million per year away from PG&E. We will be taking that money to buy renewable energy, and the money left over will be used to fund local renewable and energy-efficiency projects."

To block the potential for other Community Choice Aggregation projects, PG&E is funding a ballot initiative for next June. "The initiative would require a two-thirds vote for any community that wants to launch a similar program," Weisz explains. "PG&E has put $3 million into the initiative so far, and there are no other funders." Government organizations, on the other hand, are not permitted to spend public dollars to support or promote ballot issues.

According to Weisz, there has been a lot of lobbying by PG&E, represented by former assemblyman Joe Nation and former Marin County supervisor Gary Giacomini. "There was some confusion, possibly from PG&E's reps," Weisz says, "which led a few jurisdictions to believe there would be a burden on their general fund, which is not the case with this program. It is possible that Novato may reconsider their position. If they don't join before this ballot initiative passes, we would not be able to expand our territory without a two-thirds vote."

Communities and climate will suffer if the ballot passes, but California's three private utility companies—PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric—will not be impacted. "The PG&E ballot initiative also attempts to have an impact on how the public energy providers spend revenue," Weisz says. "Public utilities like SMUD will likely be impacted."

While PG&E dollars continue to buy fear and fuel a climate-violating ballot initiative, Marin Clean Energy is proceeding to circulate the final contract for purchase of renewables. Interestingly, this level of transparency is never practiced by private utility companies. Marin's 90-day period for public review and comments is the kind of transparency practiced by communities serious about climate-protection goals.

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