PG&E utility poles in San Francisco's Mission District. Sheraz Sadiq/KQED
PG&E utility poles in San Francisco's Mission District. (Sheraz Sadiq/KQED)

Should S.F. Buy PG&E Infrastructure? Supervisor Says Yes, But Union Wary

Should S.F. Buy PG&E Infrastructure? Supervisor Says Yes, But Union Wary

San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen introduced legislation Tuesday that would create what she is calling a Green New Deal Fund to speed the city's efforts to potentially buy Pacific Gas & Electric Co. infrastructure and develop its own municipal utility.

The legislation was introduced after PG&E and its parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection early Tuesday morning, a move the company insists is necessary to contend with tens of billions of dollars in potential liabilities growing out of the calamitous wildfire seasons of 2017 and 2018. PG&E estimated its liabilities at about $51 billion and its assets at more than $71 billion.

Ronen said the fund would be a place to put revenue earmarked for a city-owned utility that would not be bound by shareholder profits and executive bonuses.

"The priorities when a utility is municipally run is that you’re providing a safe, reliable, cost-effective system that provides an excellent service to its customers," Ronen said.

She said the time to split from the company is now.

"For years, we have been struggling to take incremental steps to deliver clean, green power to San Franciscans, while PG&E has spent millions trying to block us," Ronen said. "Against all odds, we created CleanPowerSF in 2016, but the program still relies on PG&E's existing grid for transmission and distribution. With the clock ticking on climate change and PG&E's abysmal safety record, we must take urgent action."

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Ronen's Green New Deal legislation seeks to secure $15.6 million from the excess windfall of $181 million in property taxes to kick-start the study, purchase and construction of a publicly owned grid.

CleanPowerSF generates electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, biogas and small-hydro. Ronen said the goal of the fund is also to convert the city as quickly as possible to green and renewable energy.

Tom Dalzell, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 — which represents approximately 17,000 PG&E employees and contractors — said the union does not support breaking up and selling the utility or making it city-owned.

He said the union opposed San Francisco's efforts to create a municipal utility in 2001 and 2003, and suspected the union would oppose current efforts because of potential disruptions to workers' mobility and existing benefits, seniority, pensions and medical coverage.

"Whatever direction it goes, it’s a disruption," Dalzell said. "It’s not that private is better than public. It’s the change from private to public, or public to private, or even from one private to another private we’re really wary of ... San Francisco is a progressive, good employer, and I’m sure they would do everything to mitigate. But there is no way you can mitigate the mobility, and there’s no way you can mitigate the disruption of the pension."

Ronen responded to union concerns, saying she would do everything in her power to minimize disruptions to workers' lives under her plan.

"I’m committed to making sure that the workers land as unharmed as possible and that the city works with the union in order to transition workers to becoming city employees with the least bit of disruption to their lives and their planned retirement and their wages," Ronen said.

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission General Manager Harlan Kelly said on Jan. 14 that PG&E's bankruptcy protection announcement led the city to consider buying some of PG&E's electricity distribution system.

"The SFPUC is studying the near- and long-term impacts of a PG&E bankruptcy and identifying all possible options to ensure continuity for all San Francisco power customers — including the possibility of acquiring or building electrical infrastructure assets," Kelly said.

Those comments came after San Francisco Mayor London Breed reassured residents in the city — where PG&E is headquartered — that their gas and electric service would not be affected by the company's financial problems.

SFPUC officials said in mid-January that, within the next three months, their agency will release findings that will include recommendations and an analysis of the current health of the city's electrical network.

KQED's Peter Jon Shuler and Bay City News contributed to this report.

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