(Hint: sign the petition for ballot measure)
A version of this story appeared in San Diego Reader
UCSD professor and climate activist Adam Aron presents ballot initiative to Barrio Logan Community Planning Group.
Many San Diegans already know: we pay the highest electricity rates of any metro in the nation. That’s an average of 47.5 cents per kWh, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to the national average of 17 cents. One in four San Diego residents is behind on their energy bill. Meanwhile, SDG&E paid its top executive $10 million in 2020, and its parent company, Sempra Energy, paid their CEO $23 million. Relentless, rates are set to rise again in 2024.
Non-profit Power San Diego wants the City to fire SDG&E. “We the people,” said campaign manager Dorrie Bruggemann, “should own the power lines and poles.” Power San Diego is working on a 2024 ballot measure so residents can vote on whether the City should create a municipal utility to own and operate city power poles and lines instead of SDG&E. Its main goals: lower rates by leveraging rooftop solar throughout the city, and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing local solar energy installations.
“A municipal non-profit would eliminate corporate salaries and dividends for shareholders, so rates would be at least 20% lower,” said Adam Aron, UC San Diego professor and volunteer for Power San Diego, at a presentation to the Barrio Logan community planning group on October 18th. Cities with public utilities, like SMUD in Sacramento or LADWP in Los Angeles, pay much less: in LA the average is 28 cents per kWh, and Sacramento’s 17 cents. The idea is not new. SMUD dates back to 1923, when voters approved the creation of non-profit utility for Sacramento; LADWP became LA’s sole utility provider in 1939.
The San Diego City Charter currently provides that the City “… may own and operate public utility systems, including the joint or sole operation and ownership of utilities for the purchase, development, and supply of water and electrical power for the use of the City and its inhabitants and others . .” [ARTICLE I CORPORATE POWERS Section 1: Incorporation and Corporate Powers]. The City Charter also provides that “. . . any franchise may be terminated by ordinance whenever the City shall determine to acquire by condemnation or otherwise the property of any utility necessary for the welfare of the City.” [Section 104: Term and Plan of Purchase].
“The City itself can initiate the transition, but a ballot measure,” asserts Power San Diego founder Bill Powers, “shaves about 6 years off the process.”
A municipal energy non-profit would also not be subject to California Public Utilities Commission rules, which recently changed to make solar less lucrative for homeowners. With the CPUC’s latest net metering rules, which apply to all SDG&E customers, owners of solar panels connected to the grid after April 14, 2023 earn about 75% less for the excess energy they sell back to the power company. That means it will take much longer for homeowners who invest in solar to reap the financial rewards. In the meantime, Sempra plans to build large solar projects outside of San Diego and bring the energy to the city using long-distance transmission lines, like the controversial and expensive Sunrise Powerlink. Ratepayers—i.e. SDG&E’s customers—pay for these large-scale projects through rate hikes. Sempra can also charge other companies to use the transmission lines and solar generation plants: the source of their profit.
Before CPUC changed the rules on net metering, Aron pointed out, San Diego was one of the U.S.'s fastest growing markets for residential rooftop solar—and our sunny weather has the potential to make our area into a renewable energy powerhouse that contributes to reduction in fossil fuel dependence, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Generation of electricity is estimated to cause about 25% of global GHG output, using sources such as natural gas and coal. According to Boston Solar, an average residential solar system is 9 kW and would produce about 10,000 kWh in a year. If you multiply those renewable, carbon-free kilowatt hours you get:
10,000 kWh X 0.846 = 8,460 lbs of CO2
8,460 lbs of CO2 is equivalent to the carbon emissions of 432 gallons of gas, the equivalent of taking your car off the road for almost an entire year. Looking at it another way, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an “acre of solar panels producing zero-emissions electricity saves between 267,526 to 303,513 pounds, or 121 to 138 metric tons, of carbon dioxide per year.” Any way we look at it, solar energy reduces carbon emissions by providing an alternative to fossil fuel burning, and thus is a method by which we can mitigate the atmospheric warming that causes climate change.
“A public power non-profit would be able to build local storage and leverage rooftop solar within San Diego to generate power,” said Aron, “making supply cheaper by eliminating the need to transmit energy long distances”—one reason why we pay so much in San Diego. Our current method simply is inefficient, designed to reap profit rather than productivity.
As Aron made the case to Barrio Logan residents, Power San Diego was also on the agenda at meetings in Kearny Mesa, Otay Mesa, Mission Valley, City Heights, Ocean Beach, and Linda Vista. In Barrio Logan, the October 18th meeting marked the first time SDG&E showed up to contest Power San Diego—the start of an inevitable showdown. Cory Illeman, SDG&E’s representative, stated that the City’s public power feasibility study, cited by Power San Diego, was only in Phase I and therefore voters should wait for final results in 2025 before deciding on municipalization.
“The results you are referencing today are from Phase I. The report made it clear that the findings were very premature and warned of substantial financial and legal risk for the city to take over the energy infrastructure, and the costs and the financial projections in the report remain ‘highly theoretical,’” said Illeman.
Dennis Will, a Rancho Bernardo resident and community council member who worked in aerospace for 40 years, was skeptical of Power San Diego’s plan at first. After doing his research, he agrees that a municipal power non-profit would provide better rates and options than SDG&E—but only if the City hires the right people to run it.
“I wouldn’t just turn over the power company to the City because I consider it to be a bad business person,” Will said. “It will take work, and it will take a lot of risk. They have to get the right people in charge, or the City could really mess it up.” Regardless of personal hesitations, Will backed the RBCC’s endorsement of Power San Diego’s ballot measure in a letter to the city council. RB community planners think the “initiative holds immense promise in terms of driving down electricity costs for residents.”
“I’ve not talked to anyone who does not think it’s a good idea,” Will said of his fellow RB residents. “As ratepayers, we owe it to ourselves to do better.”
SDG&E made another appearance at Ocean Beach’s planning group meeting on November 1. When a Power San Diego presenter took an informal poll of the audience to rate satisfaction with SDG&E, only one person raised her hand for 5/5.
“You must work for SDG&E,” the presenter joked.
“Well yes, I do,” said the attendee, who read a prepared statement during the Q&A. Most others at the meeting rated SDG&E one or two. SDG&E did not respond to request for comment.
Despite San Diegans’ dislike of SDG&E—it ranked lowest in customer satisfaction among private power companies in the West—Power San Diego has a long way to go. Bruggemann said volunteers must collect more than 80,000 signatures by May to get the proposal on the November 2024 ballot.
“Most people think we’re stuck with SDG&E—they don’t realize we have a choice,” said Bill Powers.