Energy-pricing lawsuit looks for jolt in courtroom

A Bayview-based group suing onbehalf of millions of households affected by the 2000-01 energy crisis is trudging through the legal process, spurred on by power-plant owners and energy traders who have agreed to reimburse scores of utility companies for sky-high electricity prices.

Lawmakers deregulated California’s energy industry in late 1996, according to an energy crisis timeline by The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. By late 2000, wholesale energy sellers were charging utility companies more than 30 times more for electricity than they charged in 1999.

Following rolling blackouts in early 2001, the California Public Utilities Commission let utility companies increase their prices by 40 percent to help cover spiraling costs.

Court documents show that since 2000, “market participants,” such as electricity-trading government agencies, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and other utility companies have settled claims against power-plant owners and energy traders for “unreasonable and unjust” electricity prices in 2000 and 2001.

Some of those agreements benefit households and ratepayers because they secure public benefits, such as new power-plants, government funding and lowered utility rates, according to University of California Energy Institute research director Jim Bushnell.

But nonprofit Californians for Renewable Energy President Mike Boyd says his group’s seven-year-old claim on behalf of regular ratepaying citizens still has not been settled or dismissed.

Last month, the group filed a lawsuit with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a bid to overturn Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-led settlement agreements and force the regulators instead to order the companies to directly compensate households. Commission spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“I don’t believe market participants should get anything,” Boyd said.

The Grace Tabernacle Church has 230 members — each paid $5 for life membership and the group solicits donations for individual lawsuits, according to Boyd. The group faces a tough legal slog, but it has a successful recent track record and is represented by former California Division of Ratepayer Advocates staff attorney Martin Homec.

Boyd figures some households are owed thousands of dollars, but he says it will be at least another year before the court rules on the case. Companies and governments have more than 200 related lawsuits before the same court, records show.

jupton@examiner.com

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