There was public indignation when this column revealed late last year the secrecy maintained by the state Public Utilities Commission as it regulates the siting, building and design of several massive solar thermal electricity projects that will soon be a major part of California’s energy portfolio.
Together with wind energy and geothermal projects, the only other developed types of constantly renewable large-scale energy, solar will soon produce about one-third of the state’s power. But because of PUC secrecy, no one knows just how much this will add to the typical monthly electric bill.
Yes, there are some clues. When considering the Mojave Solar project that will serve customers of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the five-member utilities commission talked openly about the likelihood that power from the project would cost at least double the price of kilowatts produced by oil- or gas-fired power plants.
One commissioner even suggested abandoning the project and paying its owners back the $70 million they’ve already spent on it, because that would be far more economical than going ahead.
Another clue came in a March 2011 document filed by PG&E detailing its energy procurement plans. In that one, the company noted that at the time it charged most industrial customers about 15.1 cents per kilowatt hour for power, but that by 2020, the cost would be 22 cents. So electricity in PG&E’s territory will cost about 50 percent more eight years from now – and most of that new cost will probably come from solar and wind energy projects.
Shouldn’t PG&E customers have a right to know this before their newly increased bills arrive? Nope, says the utilities commission. If people knew the price of the new power, criminals might game the market as they did during the energy crunch early in the last decade.
Other utility authorities pronounce that reasoning absurd, guessing that it has political rather than practical reasons, postulating that state legislators and PUC members don’t want the public to know the costs of their renewable-based energy policy.
But secrecy extends into other areas of PUC regulation, too. Not a good thing from an agency set up explicitly to keep utilities from overcharging their customers.
One recent example came when BrightSource Energy, now building two huge solar thermal plants to supply customers of Southern California Edison Co., added a large amount of heat-exchange energy storage capacity to its projects.
The aim is to allow energy produced during sunlit hours to be stored for later use during darker periods, thus making the plants into steadier suppliers of power.
That’s probably a good idea, and the PUC quickly approved it. But once again, there was no mention of cost. No one knows how much consumers will pay for that improvement, so no one outside the utilities commission can judge whether the gigantic storage units – and the power plants themselves – will be worth the money they’ll cost.
As with PG&E customers using Mojave Solar power, Edison customers won’t learn how much this will cost until they get the bill. For the price confidentiality will last three years – until right about the time the BrightSource plants are due to start producing power.
PUC secrecy, authorized by a 1950s-era law, also keeps reports on investigations of natural gas pipeline safety under wraps indefinitely. So persons living on or near natural gas pipelines anywhere in California can’t be absolutely certain they are not at the same kind of risk as people who lived in San Bruno before a disastrous pipeline explosion there in September 2 010.
The pipeline secrecy so far has aroused more public ire than the PUC’s similar keep-the-records closed practices on solar power pricing.
Such confidentiality might make some sense if there were any serious competition for the utilities which run gas through the pipelines or those that will be passing on to their customers the costs of power from renewable sources.
But there is no competition for companies like PG&E, Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric or Southern California Gas.
That means secrecy can only serve their corporate interests, while leaving customers figuratively in the dark.
The first glimmer of a possible change for the better in all this comes from Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, whose district includes the San Bruno disaster zone. He’s introduced a bill to repeal the 60-year-old secrecy law and let the light shine in on all aspects of utility regulation.
Any legislator who opposes that measure will have demonstrated more loyalty to corporate priorities than public safety and well-being. The same for Gov. Jerry Brown if this bill reaches him and he doesn’t sign it.
Elias is a syndicated columnist on California issues.
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