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Environment Report: Council OKs Money to Study Full Public Power

Power lines rise above homes in the Talmadge neighborhood. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

The San Diego City Council on Monday greenlighted a budget proposal to study what it’ll take for San Diego to run its own power company. Mayor Todd Gloria still needs to sign off on it, though. (His period to veto things begins Wednesday and ends June 22.) [1]

Earlier this year, Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera teamed up with Council members Joe LaCava and Monica Montgomery Steppe to propose the city create a kind of savings account that officials can tap [2] to explore energy independence, in other words, cut ties with private energy providers and take over the grid. The city’s years-long battle over the future of its franchise contract with San Diego Gas and Electric united various voices from the local environmentalist community on that public power platform.

Groups like Protect Our Communities Foundation, which has a history of fighting new natural-gas fired power plants [3] and weighing in on other clean energy issues, took a hardline stance against SDG&E getting the contract. Some of its members joined forces with other public power advocates like Climate Action Campaign (behind the genesis of San Diego Community Power, a new public agency that chooses and purchases energy for the city) under the banner Public Power San Diego, and sometimes, the tweets got nasty [4].

[4]

They held rallies in front of city buildings with a massive inflatable Monopoly man to make their point. And despite even a former Pacific Gas and Electric attorney — hired as a consultant by former Mayor Kevin Faulconer to help write a new contract — recommending the city pursue the public power if it didn’t get an acceptable bid on the first try, the delicate four Council member stronghold that seemed to threaten the deal fell apart [5].

The City Council voted 6-3 last week in favor of giving SDG&E another 20-year monopoly over electric and gas service. Elo-Rivera, also the Council’s environment committee chair, appeared to hold some of the strongest convictions against it until the last minute when he surprised some people I talked to by voting “yes” to SDG&E.

I asked him why he did, even after making the point in a memo to the mayor that the city shouldn’t ink a deal with a company it’s suing. (San Diego is still in litigation with SDG&E [6]over a program to bury power lines underground.)

Elo-Rivera said he still had “huge issues” with that. But at the end of the day, he couldn’t expect to get all of his top priorities fulfilled. His concerns were eased by some last-minute negotiating during a May 25 Council vote on the contract. During that meeting, Councilwoman Marni Von Wilpert demanded some on-the-spot public reassurance from SDG&E officials that the company wouldn’t charge San Diego to move company equipment when the city wants to do another project in the street.

There is also a big fight [7] brewing over the city’s billion-dollar wastewater recycling project, Pure Water. SDG&E refused to pay for equipment relocation, so the city sued it.

A part of the new contract with SDG&E includes a section that allows the battle over water project relocation to play out in the courts, but makes clear SDG&E “shall, without cost or expense to the city,” figure out how to move its own equipment. (Some of the nitty-gritty details have yet to be worked out. We’re still waiting on an “administrative memorandum of understanding” between San Diego and SDG&E to guide all that.)

Von Wilpert wanted to make sure water projects were the only ones in dispute and the utility would agree to pay to move its own equipment on any other infrastructure project, like sewer replacements, etc. (San Diego’s got a lotta work to do on its sewers [8].)

Utility officials confirmed they’re continuing to pay for relocations and will abide by the court’s decision on Pure Water.

Anyway.

Elo-Rivera, Montgomery Steppe and LaCava proposed the energy independent fund to pay for a real step toward public power and set aside some money should the city want to pay to get out of its contract with SDG&E, and they wanted the money ($1.2 million) to come from SDG&E shareholders’ pockets, not ratepayers.

From a preliminary assessment of all the different changes the Council made to the budget in the final hour Monday, San Diego dedicated $500,000 in general fund money toward studying public power. Whether the energy independence fund has manifested into an actual thing remains to be seen.

“I’m going to continue prioritizing investments in that fund so the city has the flexibility and resources to develop real alternatives to investor-owned utilities,” Elo-Rivera said in his comments Monday.

Mark Your Calendars for VOSD Panel on Tijuana River Sewage Crisis

Join me and Vicente Calderón of Tijuanapress.com for an unpacking of the most pressing environmental crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The polluted Tijuana River regularly spills trash and raw sewage from Tijuana into San Diego, and for decades no international treaty or action has stopped it. We can’t totally prevent a river from flowing but we can unpack the reasons why it’s such a problem.

Calderón and Elmer spent the last year following [9] how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to spend $300 million promised toward finding a solution to the problem, a solution that hasn’t yet materialized.

The evening includes a panel composed of San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas, a native Tijuanese, will join Fay Crevoshay, an environmental advocate at WILDCOAST, and environmental researcher and professor at Mexico’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte. There will be live Spanish translation.

Participants will have a chance to ask questions during the event. Register here [10].

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