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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Green-Energy Agency's Response to Critical Grand Jury Report: Screw You Guys, We're Goin' Home.

Posted By and on Thu, Dec 24, 2009 at 12:24 PM

Marin County's civil grand jury caused an uproar in the ranks of Bay Area eco-activists earlier this month when it released a scathing report on a proposed overhaul of the county's energy policy. The grand jury's panning of Marin Clean Energy, a plan to provide many areas of the county with government-purchased green electricity, caused no end of harrumphing among public-power advocates in Marin and San Francisco, where city officials are moving ahead with a similar plan called CleanPowerSF.

click to enlarge Storm clouds gather
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For those who don't make a habit of following local eco-politics, both Marin Clean Energy and CleanPowerSF are so-called community choice aggregation (CCA) programs. The programs allow government bodies to automatically enroll their citizens -- without prior consent, though they may later opt out, perhaps at a fee -- as customers of a new power provider selected by government officials. The basic point is to break the monopoly of existing utilities -- in our own case, PG&E -- in favor of providers willing to deliver cheaper or cleaner energy.

The Marin civil grand jury found a lot to criticize in this venture, despite its noble intentions. Among the jury's findings were that the mass enrollment of county citizens in the program violated basic principles of consumer protection and government transparency; that the creation of a new government bureaucracy to administer a massive experiment in power procurement is wrongheaded at a time when basic municipal services are shrinking because of anemic local budgets; and that the program's goal of developing local sources of renewable power was unrealistic in a county where draconian regulations on development cause some people to struggle for years to build a three-bedroom house.

This week we had a chance to review the Marin Energy Authority's official, written response to the grand jury's criticism. It looks like MEA officials could have saved themselves a lot of time and paper by simply lifting their thumbs to their noses.

The MEA rejected more than half of the grand jury's findings and refused to implement a single one of its recommendations. Some of its arguments -- including the point that the grand jury relied in its assessment on an outdated business plan -- are well taken. Others are spurious. For example: "The Marin Energy Authority (MEA) is a new government agency, but is not a 'new level of government.'"

To many, all this probably sounds boring and obscure. But the goings-on in Marin are being closely watched by public-power ideologues and their allies in San Francisco government, who see CCA as a backdoor means to their holy grail: booting PG&E off the San Francisco peninsula once and for all. (These activists also assert that PG&E's role in the production of the grand jury report is suspicious, noting that the company apparently obtained a copy of the report before it was released to the public.)

As it happens, the Marin civil grand jury is only the latest in a string of impartial critics to voice serious doubts about CCA, including the San Francisco controller's office and a number of independent-minded economists and energy experts. It also bears noting that the doubts about Marin are a particularly significant bellwether for the future of CCA in San Francisco, since our neighbors to the north are undertaking their program in far more promising conditions.

Marin is a fabulously rich county with a ratepayer base consisting for the most part of individual homeowners. That means the risk of a CCA foundering because of a few major corporate or industrial customers pulling out -- a distinct possibility in San Francisco -- is minimized.

Simply put: If it can't work there, it probably can't work here.

Photo   |   ellenm1

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Peter Jamison

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