PG&E could market against MCE power in the future

Utility company Pacific Gas & Electric filed a letter with state officials this week retaining its right to “express its views” on alternative energy programs like MCE, Richmond’s new green energy provider.

Formerly called Marin Clean Energy, MCE will replace PG&E as the city’s default electricity provider this summer, although under state law residents can opt out on an individual basis and continue receiving PG&E power. The switch is part of a kind of program called community choice aggregation (CCA) that allows cities to procure their own power.

PG&E cannot express any opinions or even provide information about CCA to customers or governments unless asked directly, according to the state’s CCA code of conduct.

“If it becomes necessary in the future,” PG&E may want to engage in marketing or lobbying efforts, PG&E spokeswoman Nicole Liebelt said, in which case it would need to create an independent marketing department.

“PG&E expects that at some time it will wish to express to customers or governments its views on (Community Choice Aggregation) programs,” the company wrote in the letter, filed with the California Public Utilities Commission on April 2.

Liebelt said PG&E currently has no intention of forming an independent marketing division. PG&E had until April 2 to file a letter to the CPUC stating whether it intends to engage in marketing and lobbying. PG&E’s letter made no commitment either way, but sought to reserve its right to someday speak out against CCA.

“Our primary goal is to work with local governments to provide clear and accurate information … that impact their energy bills,” Liebelt said. “We realize that the evolution of CCA is still in its early stages, so we do feel that it is reasonable to have options on how we communicate to our customers in the future.”

MCE executive director Dawn Weisz said she is concerned with PG&E’s filing. In 2010, Weisz said PG&E led an aggressive campaign in Marin County against the energy startup. “To be considering going down that path again is of great concern to us,” she said.

In February 2011, the Marin Independent Journal reported that PG&E had then spent $4.1 million in its fight against the Marin Energy Authority, the not-for-profit agency that runs MCE. A San Francisco Chronicle article from March 2010 also details some of the tension between the two power companies, including a threat by the California Public Utilities Commission to fine PG&E for defying its warning not to send customers letters with instructions for opting out.

The company “can use [its] monopoly position to take advantage of their competitors,” Weisz said.

This summer, Richmond electrical customers will receive notices of the switchover. By default, everyone will be automatically switched from PG&E power to MCE’s Light Green plan, which comes from 50 percent renewable sources.

Rate comparisons between utilities providers are a moving target, with both PG&E and MCE considering rate increases in the coming months. But MCE’s Light Green plan will likely be slightly more expensive than PG&E this summer. MCE’s board of directors will consider a 7 percent rate increase in April. PG&E will likely raise electric rates by about 2 percent in May.

You can calculate an estimate of your potential energy bill using the two companies with our interactive tool here.

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