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San Francisco Maneuvers To Buy Local Grid Owned By PG&E


San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission says the city should consider ending its relationship with California's largest utility. The utility is Pacific Gas and Electric - PG&E. You may have heard it in the headlines recently because that company is being blamed for California's deadliest wildfire. That's what investigators said just last week. So the company is in a lot of trouble. And in that trouble, the city of San Francisco sees an opportunity. KQED's Lily Jamali reports.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: In a high-rise just a stone's throw from San Francisco City Hall...


JAMALI: ...An elevator picks me up in a lobby...


JAMALI: ...And drops me off in the bowels of the building, where the hum of generators makes it hard to hear much of anything else.


JAMALI: San Francisco supplies the power that runs government buildings like this one. But it can't feed that power in without the grid, and that belongs to PG&E. Earlier this year, facing billions of dollars in liabilities from wildfires, PG&E entered into bankruptcy protection. Now city leaders see an opportunity.

BARBARA HALE: We think we can do this in a way that's better for San Francisco because we're responsive to our residents and businesses.

JAMALI: That's Barbara Hale with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. For years, her agency has been locked in a dispute with PG&E over its right to use the utilities grid at a reasonable price.

HALE: We've had a lot of difficulty receiving fair access to PG&E's distribution system.

JAMALI: Taking control of the local grid would spell the end of a century-long relationship with the deeply unpopular utility giant, which is facing criticism for putting profits over safety. One of its most vocal critics is former San Francisco mayor and now-Governor Gavin Newsom. Lives have been lost due to PG&E's neglect, Newsom says. And he's warned that everything is on the table when it comes to how the state deals with the utility and wildfire safety moving forward.


GAVIN NEWSOM: There's a word that drives shivers up people's spines. I'll give it to you. It's called municipalization.

JAMALI: Municipalization - in this case, taking a for-profit utility beholden to shareholders and putting it in public hands. That's happened almost 50 times in the past 50 years across the country, according to the American Public Power Association. Its president, Sue Kelly, says that can give citizens more say over their rates.

SUE KELLY: One of the things that we find many of our utilities do is work to reflect the values of the community. For example, if you have a community that's very interested in a green power supply, then a public power utility is one way to help make that happen.

JAMALI: A push for cleaner energy is exactly what prompted voters in Boulder, Colo., to approve a public takeover of their grid from Minnesota-based Xcel Energy. That was in 2011. Today Xcel still owns the grid. Former City Councilman Andy Schultheiss initially supported the idea. But as the years dragged on and Xcel dug in its heels, he had a change of heart.

ANDY SCHULTHEISS: It became a very difficult conversation in the community. It would - dominated several local elections in a row to the detriment of some other issues that are very important to the city.

JAMALI: Schultheiss says Xcel has become a greener utility because of Boulder's takeover push, which is ongoing. The city made Xcel a $70 million offer last month. If San Francisco can get bankrupt PG&E to give up a crown jewel, it would likely pay much more - easily in the billions. That could mean consumer rates go up at first, even if the ultimate goal is to give them more of a say.

For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lily Jamali