by Ivan Penn and Matt Stevens, NY Times
For the last 18 years, California regulators have shaped energy policy largely based on fear. They wanted to avoid repeating the disastrous experience that followed the deregulation of the energy market, which left the state vulnerable to manipulation by energy traders and caused a power crisis that led to soaring electricity prices and blackouts.
In response, they approved new power plants — more than the state could even use. They expanded the network of power lines with billions of dollars. They developed a system of trading electricity throughout the West.
But the choices of state regulators in Sacramento and San Francisco didn’t satisfy local communities. They decided to take control of their electricity.
Using a law passed in 2002, local governments have been working to wean their constituents off the electricity system run by the state’s three big shareholder-owned utilities to form government-run power programs.
The programs, known as community choice aggregation, have spread across the nation, beginning in Cape Cod in Massachusetts and spreading to New York, Illinois and increasingly California, where Marin County became the first to adopt the model in 2010.
One of the most heated debates is taking place in San Diego, where backers of such a plan are touting the prospect of lower electricity rates along with increased use of alternative energy like solar and wind power. That’s a potent promise in a state where concern over climate change and global warming has been prominent.
When a community choice program begins, the government moves all electricity customers in their service area into the new program. Consumers must opt out if they want to go back to their previous provider. The traditional utilities are typically required to maintain the network of power lines and often the billing for all customers.
California’s shareholder-owned utilities — Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric Company — argue that the required services will impose higher costs on them and ultimately their remaining customers.
And with a political-style ad campaign, the San Diego utility has raised the specter of a return to the blackouts that marked the California energy crisis.
“San Diegans and Californians are no strangers to rolling blackouts caused by deregulation that triggered an energy crisis,” a narrator says in the ad while a statement flashes on the screen, stating, “Remember the California Electricity Crisis?”
The City Council is expected to vote by year’s end on whether to approve the plan.
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