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Berkeley civic leaders support study EBMUD to consider taking over for PG&E

By Kurtis Alexander Daily Planet Staff
Thursday May 16, 2002

East Bay Municipal Utility District representatives met with Berkeley leaders this week to share their curiosity about becoming a power provider. 

Promises of cheaper electricity and a more reliable flow have the drinking water-oriented utility studying the possibility of taking over PG&E’s role in the local energy market, and EBMUD officials want customers to weigh in on the idea. 

While news of California’s power crisis has moved to the back pages of papers, questions about Enron’s power prices are now making headlines, and Berkeley leaders are showing they haven’t shaken concerns about electricity. City Council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday night urging EBMUD to move forward with public power studies. 

“We need to know how much this is going to cost and the feasibility study will tell us,” said Councilmember Linda Maio. “We may have to make a big commitment in the short run, but it’s likely to be worth it.” 

The prospect of public power surfaced in the summer of 2000 when power rates surged and local consumers took their horror to EBMUD, whose charter grants it the authority to provide other utilities besides water. 

A $50,000 study completed earlier this year by consultants R.W. Beck bolstered the notion that EBMUD could undersell PG&E by as much as 5 percent, EBMUD officials said. 

“Public power makes so much more economic sense,” affirmed Berkeley resident and founder of the public-power coalition East Bay Power. “Other public utility districts across the country have rates 20 to 30 percent less.” 

Another public power advocate, Oakland Alliance for Community Energy, agrees. 

“With a privately-held utility, interests of the consumer are at odds with the shareholders’ interests... Efficient electricity production is not always in line with making money for shareholders,” explained Alliance co-founder Graham Brownstein. 

PG&E, though, says the logic doesn’t add up. “There’s a very real chance that rates will increase,” said PG&E spokesperson Jason Alderman. 

If EBMUD takes over as a retail electricity provider, they would have to assume a transmission and distribution infrastructure which, if bought from PG&E, would cost more than $1 billion, estimates show. 

EBMUD’s ability to procure a qualified staff and maintain appropriate safety controls has also been questioned by critics. 

PG&E has made it clear that they will fight vigorously against EBMUD efforts to take over the power market. 

But this will not discourage public-power advocates, said Councilmember Maio, at least in their pursuit of more information. 

Two other types of involvement, beyond a full-fledged takeover of the electricity market, are being studied by the EBMUD. These have received the blessing of PG&E. 

In the first scenario, EBMUD would serve as an aggregator, meaning brokering electricity between wholesalers and consumers, and still using PG&E’s infrastructure. 

The second scenario would merely charge EBMUD with the mission of encouraging and facilitating more renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar. 

Brownstein suggested the two scenarios are not mutually exclusive with the plan for a complete takeover, and said the two could be implemented in the short term while more rigorous control could be assumed in the long term. 

The two shorter-term proposals, Brownstein said, would not only mean better power rates for consumers but would bring more environmentally-friendly generation. 

“We’ve had no renewable energy sources brought on line by PG&E in at least 13 years, at least nothing major,” said Brownstein. “That’s pitiful for a state that brought forth the technology.” 

EBMUD’s board of directors, having heard a variety of opinions on public power over the past year, has not committed to the idea. In fact, one of the seven board members and several staff members have raised strong objections. 

“We just want more information right now,” said Board President Katy Foulkes, who said she needs a lot more data before she makes up her mind on public power. 

Foulkes noted EBMUD’s solid reputation for administering drinking water, and added that the district already generates a small amount of electricity, but was cautious about saying the district could assume the responsibility of handling energy. 

EBMUD serves 1.3 million customers in 22 cities in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. 

Having so far spent about $200,000 on public power studies, according to EBMUD officials, the board is now deciding whether to enter the next phase of their studies which could cost up to $1 million. 

Implementation of any plan is still years away, officials said.