At least Pacific Gas & Electric Co. sent a sacrificial soldier to face down 300 angry people in Oakdale on Wednesday night. The California Public Utilities Commission, as gutless as it is wrongheaded, sent only a letter.
Feeble and wordy, it attempted to justify with legalisms the "transferred municipal departing load" charges being assessed on 8,000 residences and businesses in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties. People will be billed $9 to $21 a month for three years to cover the cost of electricity they never asked for, never used, never wanted and never agreed to buy.
But because PG&E claims it planned to serve those homes -- homes that didn't exist when it purchased the power -- it has received the CPUC's blessing to take more than $2.4 million from our communities over three years.
Few of these people even had a choice of power providers. Someone at some point made the reasonable decision that residents in new homes would rather pay less for power than PG&E charges. Clearly, that galls the company.
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Ken Cooper, the uncomfortable PG&E agent sent into the breach, provided the rationale -- PG&E was ordered to collect the fees; most of the money will go to the state; it's a question of fairness to PG&E customers.
Representing the Modesto Irrigation District, Ann Trowbridge and Tom Kimball pointed out that PG&E asked the CPUC to order it to collect the fees, noted that some of the money will find its way back to PG&E shareholders, and wondered about the fairness to MID's customers.
Kyle Loosli, an Oakdale businessman, wanted to emulate the company -- explaining that he had planned to sell water at the meeting. Just because the speakers had chosen to drink someone else's water, that didn't relieve them of the obligation to pay him for his planning. And by the way, his price is $10 a bottle.
Cooper quietly explained that the difference is that PG&E is "required" to plan to serve people, whether they want to buy the electricity or not.
Kimball, MID's assistant general manager, teed off on that argument: "I hear this all the time," he said, "but ... we've provided load forecasts to the CPUC and PG&E, and they've used those load forecasts," meaning that if PG&E bought too much electricity, it was the company's fault -- not that of future noncustomers.
Stuart Long of Ripon said he was in business for 38 years. "If we misbid a project, we ate it, baby. Why don't you eat it?" He continued, "I admire (Cooper) for being here. ... But I hope I never run into one your executives, because I'll deck him."
Most of the speakers were just as angry.
"There's a word for this," said Mary Brown of Oakdale. "It's robbery."
Eli Paintedcrow drove up from Merced. "I spent 22 years in the military," she said to warm applause, "and if I have to barbecue in my back yard, I will -- because I know how to do it."
Ripon's Willie Higgs recounted a call to PG&E: "I asked the lady why they were charging me this, and she said, 'Because we can.' So I came here to tell you I'm not going to pay."
Carl Stocke of Ripon told Cooper, "What you're really trying to do is boost your profits by picking our pockets."
Responding to an explanation of PG&E's losses during the 2000-01 energy crisis, Oakdale's Don Barton said, "PG&E is an investor-owned company; the burden (for losses) falls to the shareholders of PG&E." Then he thanked MID for standing up for its customers.
Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court refused to hear MID's appeal. Still, Trowbridge, a Sacramento "superlawyer" for MID, told the 300 to express their outrage to the CPUC.
That wasn't enough for Ripon's Jennifer Stone: "Can we replace the CPUC commissioners?" she asked. "Clearly, they don't represent us."
Jennifer Sanguinetti of Ripon targeted elected representatives, saying they passed a law that made collection of this fee possible, so they can pass another to kill it. She commended Sen. Dave Cogdill and Assemblyman Tom Berryhill for sending staff to the meeting. Then, after pointing out that PG&E spent $2 million on lobbying this year, she wondered where 5th Senate District candidate Greg Aghazarian's representative was.
Escalon's Kurt Danziger, who organized the meeting and has helped form the Publicly Owned Utility Customer Association, offered this advice: "You can do what I'm going to do ... I'm not paying until somebody comes to get it."
Taking such a principled stand against a state agency and one of the nation's largest utilities takes guts. But when you feel your actions are justified, guts are easy to find. Maybe that's why the CPUC just sent a letter.
Dunbar is the associate editor of The Bee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org