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Renewable energy rate-battle is CPUC’s chance to prove it’s not in PG&E’s pocket

http://www.sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/on-guard/

Our hot world is working to cool down, together.

In Paris, international leaders broke into tears over an agreement to reduce carbon emissions. Did the agreement go far enough to save our environment? Probably not.

Still, some are calling the deal “historic.” And, at least, it’s a step forward.

However, on the eve of those talks, here in famously liberal San Francisco, we may soon “historically” blunder backwards on climate change.

The California Public Utilities Commission is set to approve a set of rate calculations from Pacific Gas & Electric, Co. Buried in dense regulator-ese is a provision to adopt what’s called the “Power Change Indifference Amount.”

In plain English, it’s a provision to jack up the price customers pay to join renewable energy programs sponsored by cities. In San Francisco, that’s CleanPowerSF, which may launch as soon as next year.

This may stunt renewable energy programs in Marin, Sonoma and any city that may soon offer such programs.

If you’re a customer of PG&E, you now pay an “exit fee” to drop PG&E and join a community choice aggregation program, in which cities provide renewable energy to their citizens. This decision may send those exit fees through the roof, by nearly 95 percent.

PG&E is no doubt jacking the fees to protect their once-monopoly on California energy.

The consumer will never see this fee, but that’s only because community choice aggregation programs like CleanPowerSF will eat the cost — and the effect it will have on the program itself is damning.

Jason Fried, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, told On Guard the exit fee may cost CleanPowerSF as much as $8.5 million in the next five years.

“That’s millions that could’ve been spent on the buildout,” he told me.

The money would create jobs building out solar panels, wind turbines and energy of the hippie-dippy planet-saving variety. Whereas CleanPowerSF may have seen its power mix become 50 percent renewable in the coming years, now the program may have to scale back to 33 percent renewable in the near future, Fried said.

That’s still more clean and green than PG&E, but it’ll delay CleanPowerSF’s lofty plans — and every year counts in our rapidly warming world.

The decision is also a test for a regulator that’s shown itself to be a dozing watchdog.

The CPUC’s “love letters” to PG&E are well documented — especially despicable when seen in the light of a PG&E-produced fireball that destroyed a part of San Bruno, killing eight.

Disgraced CPUC President Michael Peevey stepped down, and Michael Picker is now steering the regulator in a new direction. But the president wasn’t the only one blowing kisses PG&E’s way.

Emails revealed in the last month by the city of San Bruno show commissioner Mark Florio, who is still somehow shockingly sitting on the commission, was particularly close to PG&E.

“Amazing how I’ve been ‘an apologist for PG&E’ in just three years, isn’t it,” Florio wrote in a 2011 email, as the San Jose Mercury News revealed.

San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson told On Guard, “Mr. Florio has demonstrated he is concerned PG&E gets what it wants, whether it’s in the public’s interest or not.”

We asked the CPUC for comment, but received no answers by press time.

Now Picker and the commission are facing an early test of their “new direction” — raising “exit fees” on state renewable energy programs may show if CPUC will kow-tow to PG&E again.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, tried to reform this shady relationship, only to see his bill vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (“moonbeam,” indeed). Leno penned a letter to the CPUC decrying the vote to raise prices on the PG&E exit fees.

Speaking to On Guard, Leno said the CPUC’s job “is to scrutinize the utilities presentations in these rate setting cases, and be there to protect the consumer.”

“We’re just asking them to do the job they’ve been given to do,” he said.

Come Thursday, we’ll see if the CPUC is still a smooching watchdog, or if it has bite.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

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