Alameda Municipal Power may be the oldest publicly owned electric utility in the western United States, but it typically obtains all of that power from off the island. Alamedans receive all that out-of-town electricity through two transmission lines. One travels from a Pacific Gas & Electric substation near the Oakland Coliseum and enters Alameda near High Street. The second one flows from a PG&E substation in Jack London Square through a line under the estuary via the nearby Webster Street Tube.
The proposed conversion of a dirty jet fuel-fired power plant in West Oakland to a facility eventually capable of storing 20-30 megawatts of clean energy has received plaudits as an elegant way to reduce the region’s carbon footprint and help cleanse the chronically dirty air near the Port of Oakland. But while Alameda utility officials support the project’s underlying goals, they contend that the experimental Oakland Clean Energy Initiative will put Alameda residents’ access to power at risk during an emergency.
In early November, the Alameda City Council directed its city attorney to file a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission against PG&E, asserting that the Oakland Clean Energy Initiative places an undue burden on Alameda Municipal Power and its customers.
The crux of the complaint is a concern by the utility known as AMP that if the Oakland Clean Energy Initiative does not properly work, the island’s two connections to the power grid will be reduced to one — a precarious situation that could put AMP’s roughly 36,000 customers at risk of losing power for an extended period of time.
Under one part of the so-called Oakland Clean Energy Initiative, the residential solar electricity provider SunRun plans to install small batteries in more than 500 low-income households in and around Oakland. The batteries are designed to serve as a “virtual power plant” that will feed electricity back into the system at times of peak demand. Last July, the chairwoman of East Bay Community Energy’s Community Advisory Committee described the innovative project to this newspaper as a “proof of concept.” “It gives other localities something to point to, to say ‘This does work,”‘ Chairwoman Anne Olivia Eldred said.
But the very cutting-edge nature of that proposal is what concerns observers in Alameda. AMP officials first described their concerns about the project’s impacts on Alameda back in October 2017 during testimony at a meeting of the California Independent System Operator, the body that oversees bulk electric power and transmission lines in the state.
In voicing its opposition to the plan, the officials told the system operator that it was worried that a failure of the new system might cause PG&E to force AMP to suddenly route the island’s entire power supply through a single one of its two transmission lines. AMP General Manager Nicolas Procos said the task of performing an unplanned transmission switch to a single power feed, as proposed by PG&E, is a difficult undertaking. “That’s the part of plan that that gives us heartburn,” Procos said.
Alameda energy officials insist that their decision to issue a complaint against PG&E was not made in haste, but comes after more than two years of lobbying and a failure by the embattled utility to acknowledge AMP concerns about the potential downsides of their plan.
AMP offered a term sheet to PG&E last January designed to ensure the reliability of power to the area without the potential risk for Alameda customers, Procos wrote. The term sheet also included proposed revisions to the entity’s operating agreement with PG&E, signed in 2011. “No response to the city’s [Oakland Clean Enery Initiative] term sheet was ever received from PG&E,” Procos noted. In an interview, Procos said he could not publicly detail AMP’s proposed solutions to the issue while the city’s complaint is in the works.
In addition, he wrote PG&E’s “willful disregard of the 2011 Operating Agreement renders [it] as unjust, unreasonable, and unduly discriminatory. … PG&E’s refusal to meet in good faith with AMP and its refusal to ameliorate the hardship and burdens PG&E is unilaterally imposing on AMP and its customers, leave the city and AMP with no option other than to escalate the issue and seek relief in the appropriate forum.”
Several public documents argue that PG&E is singling out Alameda to bear the brunt of transmission switches, along with numerous assertions alluding to PG&E’s intransigence toward AMP’s complaints. In letter sent by Assemblymember Rob Bonta and state Sen. Nancy Skinner in July to PG&E CEO William Johnson, they called the proposal “risky” for AMP to perform transmission switching during emergency situations.
“We are not aware of any known examples where the solution to a transmission deficiency is to switch 36,000 customers over to a single source,” Bonta and Skinner wrote. “Failure of that single source could lead to a power interruption to the entire island of Alameda. We urge you to engage meaningfully with AMP to address these concerns and ensure the success of this innovative project. … It would be a disappointing outcome if this innovative project should fail due to poor planning on the part of PG&E to ensure all stakeholders are on board and all contingencies are considered.”
The city’s annoyance with PG&E was further highlighted in a scathing Oct. 15 letter sent by Procos. The letter contained an unspecified threat of legal action, to which PG&E did not respond. Roughly three weeks later, the Alameda City Council agreed to file a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “Nearly every attempt by AMP to engage in a meaningful dialogue with PG&E has been met with resistance, delay, and on occasion a complete refusal to even communicate or otherwise return emails,” Procos wrote.
PG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Robison said the utility has not reviewed Alameda’s complaint. “We continue to work with all local stakeholders on this important, innovative project,” she said. “We have not seen the city of Alameda’s filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but we plan to review and study any such filing.”
But with PG&E currently in bankruptcy and reeling from the fallout of several Northern California wildfires started by its aging transmission lines, not to mention rising anger from the public due to widespread power shut-offs intended to limit more wildfires, there’s little political downside right now for taking on PG&E. Gov. Gavin Newsom and a growing number of big-city mayors have publicly called for the utility to become a public co-operative due to allegations of gross mismanagement over the years.
Alameda Assistant City Attorney Alan Cohen said the city’s intent to file a complaint against PG&E is not meant to be punitive, but rather a move to protect Alameda ratepayers. Nevertheless, he believes PG&E’s inaction in this case echoes criticism of the public utility being voiced with greater frequency, that it is unresponsive and poorly managed. “We feel they have not negotiated with us in a productive fashion,” he added. “Given PG&E’s current issues, we see this as its statewide pattern of PG&E sort of being intransient.”