Millions of dollars in campaign cash could drastically affect the course of California's renewable energy economy in the years ahead.
That is the concern of the dozens of citizen rights groups and renewable energy advocates urging Californians to vote "no" on Proposition 16 in the state's June elections. The proposition would require a two-thirds' majority from voters for a county or city to municipalize its power.
Although PG&E is selling the proposition as a measure that would give voters more power, the people already have the right to vote on whether their city or county should get in the power business, but such decisions are made by a simple majority. Requiring a two-thirds majority would make it extremely difficult for any city or county to create a public utility rather than buy power from a private utility.
The utility has already spent millions to get the measure on the ballot, hiring a signature-gathering firm to get over a million signatures, more than enough to get a proposition on the state's ballot. According to Dave Room, coordinator of Oakland's Local Clean Energy Alliance and co-founder of nonprofit Bay Localize, the utility paid about 70 cents per signature.
It's not the first time PG&E has thrown down serious cash to protect its grip on the power market in Northern California.
In 2009, it spent $10 million to successfully defeat Proposition H, which would have created a public utility in San Francisco. Earlier this year, it spent $13 million to defeat a move by public utility Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to annex nearby Yolo County.
In 2007, PG&E actually supported San Francisco's CleanPowerSF plan, which gives citizens the option of getting 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources through PG&E. Given that the utility is now struggling to meet California's minimum renewable portfolio standard (a 20 percent increase in renewable energy sources by 2010), it is now expected to lobby its customers to opt out of the CleanPower program via a campaign focused on the rates those who opt in will have to pay.
If Prop 16 is approved, community choice measures such as CleanPowerSF, which are currently made by council members and not put out to public vote, would also require a two-thirds majority vote of the public.
"PG&E is painting it as if voters don't have the choice right now and this proposition will give them that choice, but first of all, with municipalization, they already have the vote, and with community choice aggregation, it's probably appropriate that citizens don't vote," Room says.
"The whole notion of representative government is that we elect smart people who can make educated decisions on complex matters. Community choice isn't done that often in California, and people don't really understand it, so it makes sense for local governments to make that decision."
There are two concerns about Prop 16: that PG&E will be able to lock in high rates and hike them whenever it wants to and that citizens and municipalities will be denied the right to buy and support renewable energy.
"There's a whole set of public utilities in California, specifically ones in PG&E's jurisdiction, that are providing power at lower rates and at the same time providing greener power," Room says.
"SMUD's prices are 27 percent lower than PG&E's on average, and they have 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources right now and plan to have 23 percent by the end of the year. PG&E has around 14 percent of its energy from renewables, which is still nowhere near the 20 percent required by the state's renewable portfolio standard."
So far, only a handful of groups have stepped forward to support Prop 16: the California Chamber of Commerce and a few local chambers of commerce, plus the electrical workers union, which is concerned about keeping on good terms with the utility.
Meanwhile, opposition to the proposition is growing, and not just renewable energy supporters. At a joint informational hearing on the proposition in the state capitol last month, Michael Boccadoro of the usually conservative Agricultural Energy Consumers testified about the proposition:
"It would have a chilling effect on the farming community," Boccadoro said, later adding: "Maybe it's time for a vote on rate increases as well."
In the lead-up to the vote, several cities have passed resolutions against Prop 16, including Berkeley, Palo Alto, Glendale and a number of irrigation districts. "Unfortunately, local government can't legally spend time or money on this, so it's hard for them to compete with the $35 million PG&E is spending," Room says.
To bolster the opposition, several local nonprofits are staging rallies and campaigns to inform the public, but whether it will be enough to compete remains to be seen.