California power grid expansion moves forward

State legislation that would replace the main California power grid operator with a regional multi-state entity moved forward Tuesday, making it more likely that state officials could give up their authority over the network of transmission lines.

The proposal, known as Assembly Bill 813, passed the state Senate Judiciary Committee on a 4-1 vote, with chair Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, opposed.

“I was here 18, 19, 20 years ago, when we were dealing with the energy crisis,” Jackson said before the vote. “We could not get any help or any relief from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. We were basically told to go pound sand, and $40 billion later the state of California, I think we are still paying off the bonds.”

The bill, which has been an objective of Gov. Jerry Brown for the past three years, would expand the state power grid now controlled by a state-created nonprofit with a regional body that would answer to federal regulators rather than to California officials.

Supporters note that the electric grid already is under the authority of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and say the bill would save ratepayers money by allowing excess solar power to be marketed in other states.

“It helps us take dirtier resources off the grid in other states,” Lauren Navarro of the Environmental Defense Fund told the committee. “We’re going to help these states transition their energy resources to cleaner energy resources through entrepreneurship.”

Critics say the plan would do away with key consumer protections by eliminating state oversight of the power grid and allowing federal regulators to second-guess California’s clean-energy goals, which require that the state generate at least half of its electricity from renewable power sources by 2030.

They also say it could cost 110,000 jobs over the next dozen years.

“The question isn’t whether we should engage in better regional coordination. The question is how,” said Matthew Freedman of the Utility Reform Network. “Under this option, the state would give up any meaningful control and your role as elected officials would become extremely marginalized. In effect, you won’t matter anymore.”

Most of the state power grid is now managed by the California Independent System Operator, a Folsom nonprofit overseen by a board whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

The rest of the network is governed by municipal utilities like the Sacramento Municipal Power District and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The public-power groups generally oppose the plan to create a multi-state power grid.

If adopted, the regional grid would be governed by a board of industry stakeholders nominated by participating states, meaning California would have no direct control of the operation.

Before voting to move the legislation on to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, asked if California ratepayers would be on the hook for new transmission lines constructed out of state.

Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supports the regionalization plan, said California consumers would pay for only those portions of new power lines that directly benefit them.

“That’s a well-established statute,” he told the senator.

Anderson said he had concerns about some elements of the bill but would vote to move it forward Tuesday.

Adam Scow of Food & Water Watch said eliminating state oversight of the power grid would embolden the coal and gas industries backed by President Donald Trump.

“If California is going to continue leading the nation on renewable power, it must retain control of its electric grid,” he said.

The idea of converting to a multi-state power grid dates back to the 1990s energy deregulation law. But the concept was scrapped after the effort led to massive increased electricity costs, first in San Diego and then across the state.

The plan resurfaced three years ago, but was stopped in the statehouse in both 2016 and 2017.

At least one law firm threatened to sue the state if the regional-grid legislation is adopted.

San Diego attorney Maria Severson on Tuesday circulated a draft legal complaint seeking a permanent injunction against the plan on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and unlawfully relieves the legislature of important policy choices.