San Diego ponders a bid to take over its for-profit energy utility

Activists pushing San Diego to take over the city’s investor-owned utility aren’t letting last year’s defeat of a similar effort in Maine deter their goal of establishing a nonprofit power company. They recently submitted petitions bearing more than 30,000 signatures from residents who want the City Council to let voters decide the matter this fall.

Advocates say a municipal takeover of San Diego Gas & Electric would deliver cheaper rates and a faster, more affordable, and more equitable transition to clean energy. Still, the measure faces long odds from skeptical council members who have twice rejected similar proposals.

The campaign is the first public power ballot initiative since 70 percent of voters in Maine rejected a proposal to take over the state’s two largest utilities. A group called Power San Diego delivered several cardboard boxes filled with petitions to the San Diego city registrar’s office on May 14. If just over 24,000 of the signatures on those documents are deemed valid, the Council will have to decide whether to put the question to voters in the next election.

What’s happening in Southern California reflects growing frustration with the high rates and lackluster service investor-owned utilities often provide and a desire to accelerate the green transition. Similar campaigns are afoot in Rochester, New York, and San Francisco, and Empire State lawmakers recently introduced a bill to buy out Central Hudson Gas & Electric and create a public power authority. 

“Across the country, people are talking about public ownership of energy,” Sarahana Shrestha, a New York state assembly member who co-sponsored the bill, told Grist. “If we want a just transition — taking care of workers, and making sure that it’s affordable and brings benefits back into communities — there’s no effective way of doing that while you’re still answering to shareholders.”

San Diego residents pay some of the nation’s highest electricity rates, and by one estimate, more than a quarter of customers are behind on their payment. (The utility has attributed its high rates to the cost of everything from wildfire prevention to building transmission lines and other clean energy infrastructure.) Takeover advocates say the move would save residents 20 percent on their utility bills because a nonprofit model eliminates the need to provide shareholders with a return. It estimates the cost at $3.5 billion, citing a study commissioned by the city last year.

That analysis found that the utility’s 3.7 million customers could save 13 to 14 percent annually if the city bought the utility’s grid assets for $2 billion and created a municipal utility. The math is less favorable if the cost of the buyout goes up, however; At a price of $6 billion, ratepayers could face additional costs of $60 million over the first decade but see long-term savings after 20 years.

San Diego Gas & Electric vehemently opposes the effort and has backed the political action committee Responsible Energy San Diego to block it. The organization calls itself “a coalition of diverse San Diego leaders” fighting “a reckless ballot initiative to force a government takeover of the energy grid.” The utility has contributed well over $700,000 to the committee, according to records on the San Diego Ethics Commission website. 

That’s more than twice what Power San Diego has raised and reflects a dynamic in which political action committees supported by Maine’s two investor-owned utilities received 34 times more money than public power advocates. Activists there say that allowed the utilities to finance a robust campaign of advertising and misinformation to defeat the referendum.

San Diego Gas & Electric has hired Concentric Energy Advisors, the same consultants who helped defeat the effort in Maine. The company’s study commissioned by the San Diego utility estimated the cost of a public takeover of the grid at $9.3 billion. 

Matt Awbrey of Responsible Energy San Diego told Grist the city should address other priorities like affordable housing rather than a proposal “to create a new government-run utility that has no plan, budget or verifiable cost estimates.” He said the cost of the takeover likely would bring “higher taxes, higher electric bills, and/or cuts to essential city services we all depend on.” 

Power San Diego intended to gather 80,000 signatures by July, which would have placed the proposal on November’s ballot. But it lacked the funding for such an effort and decided to seek 30,000 signatures, or roughly 3 percent of registered voters. That would require the City Council to vote on whether to put the matter to voters.

Dorrie Bruggeman, senior campaign coordinator for Power San Diego, doesn’t expect the council to do that; it already has rejected such a proposal on two occasions, with council members calling for greater detail on costs and projected revenues. Council President Sean Elo-Rivera is among those with reservations.

“I have no love for corporate monopolies reaching into the pockets of everyday working people,” he told the local news outlet La Jolla Light. “But this is a very complex and important issue and I don’t think this is baked enough to go to the voters.”

Regardless of any qualms the council may have, Bill Powers, chair of Power San Diego, said his organization has prompted an important discussion within the community and sparked voter engagement on the issue. The next step is getting policymakers behind the idea.

“If we can get a couple of council members that are open to public power, if we can get a mayor who is open to public power, which we’ve had in the past, then the movement isn’t dependent on the endpoint of a ballot initiative,” Powers said.

Such campaigns are gaining momentum elsewhere. Public power advocates in Rochester, New York, want the city to evaluate the costs and benefits of a municipal utility. In San Francisco, city officials are currently working with the California Public Utilities Commission to determine how to set a fair price for Pacific Gas & Electric’s distribution grid, in the hopes of creating a citywide public power system. 

On May 17, New York Assemblymember Shrestha and State Senator Michelle Hinchey introduced a bill to create the Hudson Valley Power Authority, a public power entity that would buy out Central Hudson Gas & Electric. The utility has drawn criticism for its high rates and a string of billing failures since 2021. If the measure passes, the Hudson Valley Power Authority would seek to lower rates, improve service, and hasten the green transition while protecting labor rights.

Joe Jenkins, Central Hudson’s director of media relations, told Grist the proposed takeover would involve “significant hidden costs, loss of jobs, and loss of tax revenue for towns and schools,” adding that rates for municipal utilities in New York are nearly 9 percent more expensive than those of investor-owned utilities. 

Shrestha said the legislation reflects her constituents’ growing interest in public power. Her office has hosted seven town halls this past year to discuss energy democracy. “People are so fed up with getting bills that are inconsistent and late,” she said. “People are really excited about learning how we can actually get public power done.”


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