Sempra Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric, Edison overspend with impunity

It’s hypocrisy on steroids, but profitable

Palomar Energy Center
  • Palomar Energy Center

From the cradle onward, we are told to be thrifty. Unfortunately, public utilities do the reverse. They fatten up their bottom lines spending gobs of money on things they don’t need. Pro-utility, anti-consumer regulators reward the profligacy. The overspending begets overproduction of energy. But utilities’ revenue, profits, and stocks go up. Everybody is happy except ratepayers, who pick up the tab.

Yes, utilities’ road to riches is excessive capital spending. This is especially true in this state, where the California Public Utilities Commission is committed to boosting the revenue and profits of the investor-owned utilities — Sempra Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Edison International — and fleecing ratepayers in the process. Those three utilities have among the highest electricity rates in the nation. According to the Southern California Public Power Authority, San Diego Gas & Electric, a unit of Sempra Energy, has rates that can be double those of municipally owned utilities such as those in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Riverside, and Sacramento.

The state utilities commission caps profits at about 10.5 percent of a utility’s assets, such as transmission lines and power plants. So, the way to boost profits is to increase those assets, necessary or not. Regulators authorize higher returns as construction escalates.

Bill Powers

Bill Powers

“The ratepayer gets hosed,” says Bill Powers of San Diego’s Powers Engineering. He regularly testifies against excessive spending by utilities, but the commission, with one eye on Wall Street, permits unneeded plants and lines to be built. It’s double-dealing that involves double-counting. “The ratepayer pays for a plant when it is built by a third party,” says Powers. The plant may be fully utilized and written off. “Then the ratepayer pays again when the plant is sold to San Diego Gas & Electric.”

One of the worst examples is what’s called “affiliate transactions.” This is a parent company building a plant and then selling it to its own operating subsidiary — at a fat profit, often. This kind of hocus-pocus — call it “ledger-demain” — has been heavily criticized, but under Michael Peevey, the president of the commission for a dozen years beginning in 2002, the opposition was squashed. (Peevey, a former president of Southern California Edison, is under criminal investigation for similar transgressions at the commission. He and Edison held illegal, secret meetings to force ratepayers into coughing up for the closing of the San Onofre nuclear plant.)

Powers points to three instances in which Sempra Energy built power plants and sold them to one of its operating units, San Diego Gas & Electric: one was the Desert Star Energy Center in Nevada, formerly called El Dorado; a second was the Palomar Energy Center in Escondido; and a third was the ESJ wind project in Tecate. Sempra agrees that these deals were technically affiliate transactions.

Sempra built Palomar for about $275 million and sold it to its affiliate, SDG&E, for around $450 million, says Powers. The Energy Division of the commission reviews such deals, and it is “notorious for being sympathetic to the utility perspective,” he says. “A lack of oversight is so institutionalized — with the ratepayer getting hosed — that it is standard operating procedure.”

Says Powers, “This is an open scandal, hiding in plain sight. It’s a clear conflict of interest sitting right in front of you.” But the utilities and their handmaiden, the commission, get away with it.

The Utility Reform Network (better known as TURN) of San Francisco cites several examples of the overspend-and-get-rich mentality. Pacific Gas & Electric wanted to build a gas plant in Oakley, California. It would have cost customers $200 million a year, jacking up the utility’s profits. TURN took the matter to court twice and won each time. The reform group also fought utility double-dipping on smart meters. “Utilities received not only guaranteed returns on the smart meters but continued to collect on their investment in analog meters, which were sitting in a trash heap,” says the reform group’s spokesperson, Mindy Spatt.

Mike Aguirre

Mike Aguirre

Maria Severson

Maria Severson

Ray Lutz

Ray Lutz

Then there are electric-vehicle charging stations. San Diego Gas & Electric “wants $103 million to build, own, and operate 5500 charging stations over four years,” says Spatt. This “gives SDG&E too much money for an experimental program that customers will pay for but many will never be able to take advantage of.”

The clandestine way by which the commission and the investor-owned utilities collude to pump up utility profits is exemplified by the handling of the San Onofre decommissioning. Unless there are changes, ratepayers will be billed for 70 percent of the almost $5 billion cost.

“The bigger the disaster, the bigger the error, the more money utilities make,” says San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre, who with his partner Maria Severson is battling the San Onofre decision. “Making mistakes is a good business model.” He says that San Diego Gas & Electric “keeps expanding the number of gas-fired plants it owns, in order to make money for Southern California Gas,” also a Sempra subsidiary that distributes natural gas, now a pariah because of a natural-gas leak at its Aliso Canyon facility in San Fernando Valley. Thousands of citizens of the affluent community of Porter Ranch have had to evacuate.

Ray Lutz of Citizens Oversight points out that “utilities are scared to death of rooftop solar.” That is true. It is much more economical for ratepayers than getting energy directly from utilities. So, the companies do everything they can to thwart the advance of rooftop solar. They build solar farms in the desert. The power comes into metro areas at great expense, and, of course, the utilities can make a bundle on the transmission lines they construct.

Powers estimates that San Diego Gas & Electric is making between $90 million and $100 million a year on the Sunrise Powerlink project, the 117-mile transmission line that brings sun, wind, and geothermal power to San Diego from Imperial Valley. Sempra won’t reveal those numbers.

But “the plethora of geothermal power that could go across Sunrise from Imperial Valley is ignored,” says Severson. SDG&E and regulators have “given lip service to renewable energy but have appeared to forgo the naturally occurring geothermal energy a few miles away” from the Sunrise sources of power.

It’s hypocrisy on steroids, but it is very profitable.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Don - the Madoff 2 night miniseries is tonight at 8pm and tomorrow Feb3+4. Richard Dreifus plays the madman and Blythe Danner plays the wife. Maybe it will reveal why a thief thinks there's need to accumulate billions of other people's money???

It's all about compensation. For being short in more ways than one.

Flapper: But the longs control the stock market most of the time. The U.S. government and Federal Reserve keep it that way. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: We already know why stock market thieves accumulate other people's money: insatiable greed. Best, Don Bauder

Pathological feelings of inadequacy.

Flapper: I have to disagree there. I have dealt with stock market pros for more than five decades. Most have feelings of superiority, not inadequacy. Best, Don Bauder

Exactly. But that comes from deep-seated (hidden) feelings of inadequacy. Ask their trophy wives. Capish?

Flapper: Certainly, Bernard Madoff had deep and hidden feelings of inadequacy that motivated him to pull a huge Ponzi scheme. He is also a sociopath, very clearly. I'm just not convinced that the Wall Street titans deep-down feel inferior. Best, Don Bauder

It's all about overcompensation. The narcissist believes his own line of bull$hit. But three-inch dicks and performance anxiety drive 99.9 percent of male insecurity. The corresponding psychosis in women is all about appearances. This is why psychotics rule the world.

Flapper: I agree on both points. Narcissists believe their own lies. That's why con artists can be so convincing. And sociopaths rule the world. The last thing a world leader needs is a conscience. Best, Don Bauder

Don - This is just the tip of the iceberg or should I say $berg.

I believe that if San Onofre had had a "small" nuclear accident related to one or more RSG tube failures, that SCE would have even made more profits since the cleanup would have taken a very long time (decades?) AND that is in addition to the income stream from the decommissioning funds. As it is now, SCE did not get to profit from any accident cleanup, just their lost profits (for designing and operating San Onofre so it failed! If some portion of Camp P. Got "wasted," hey that is just part of SCE doing business. This is exactly what is now happening in Fukushima, Japan, as TEPCO (now owned by the Japanese Gov't. Is making billions from the "cleanup" that will take decades if not much longer.

Another" reason that the Nuclear Industry and their Utilities are desperate to create a radioactive waste dumping site is that they are going to want to site Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) very soon, which companies like SD's General Atomic are now working on. Since CA has a law that says no more nuclear reactors, until a waste site is developed, the lack of a disposal site is the biggest roadblock they face preventing them from deploying SMRs in CA.

Since the CPUC just decided against approving SCE building a Nat. Gas Peaker plant, you can bet that SCE is now getting "very excited" about installing one or more SMR's at San Onofre, since the grid wiring connection is already in place and they are going to be guarding that "nuclear waste" site for decades to come, so what better place to install SMR's "because they don't emit CO2."

SDG&E is getting ready to make big money using Nat. Gas, since they already have a contract to import Nat. Gas from Mexico (which Sempra owns a share of, so they will be in effect, buying Nat. Gas from themselves) for use in their two new state of the art Billion Dollar Peaker Plants that the CPUC just approved for them (despite the fact that the cost of Wind and Solar generation continues to drop almost monthly)!

Unities are raping the ratepayers but the CPUC has turned a blind eye to making them stop.

CaptD: Very interesting analysis. The bigger the flop, the more profits rise. It will be fascinating to watch small nuclear reactors. Best, Don Bauder

Cap'n Dee has gotta be a "Deep-Throat." I hope he or she doesn't get exposed and burned at the stake. This is real SUBSTANCE!

Flapper: CaptD has a great deal of knowledge. He may have acquired it from within. Best, Don Bauder

Jay Berman: You are saying, in essence, that Southern California Edison deliberately fouled up San Onofre -- putting thousands of lives in danger -- to maximize the company's profits. I am not saying I agree with you, partly because I'm not sure Edison brass is smart enough to pull off such a huge Machiavellian scheme.

But I understand where you are coming from. And the lies that Edison and the CPUC have concocted to cover up the San Onofre corruption could lead one to believe your theory. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect what you suspect. Best, Don Bauder

LEGISLATION INTRODUCED TO BREAK UP AND REFORM CALIFORNIA PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION. Today (February 3), Assemblyman Mike Gatto, Democrat of Los Angeles, chairman of the Utilities and Commerce Committee, revealed a constitutional amendment to restructure and reform what he calls "the scandal-ridden California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)."

Gatto was joined by Assemblymembers Scott Wilk, Republican-Santa Clarita, and Marc Levine, Democrat-San Rafael. Those two, also, using such words as "corrupt" to refer to the commission, said it is time to reassess the CPUC's role as a regulator.

A key part of this reform package would be to reassign certain functions to more appropriate state agencies, and provide greater accountability. Gatto mentioned that the legislature has made several attempts to reform the commission, but they were vetoed by the governor. Governor Jerry Brown in recent months vetoed a comprehensive package of legislation that would reform the CPUC.

Gatto hopes to bypass Brown and ask voters to break up the commission. The CPUC as it is currently known would not exist in 2018 if voters approve the plan.

Levine said today, "The public sentiment is that the CPUC works for big money interests." That has been thoroughly proven by its secret actions on behalf of Southern California Edison in the decommissioning of the San Onofre nuclear plant, plus other incidents, including the gas leakage by a subsidiary of Sempra.

Last week, the state Senate approved two bills that would limit commissioners' private communications with utility officials. Best, Don Bauder

don bauder The problem is that in order to change the California constitution, either by revision or amendment(the more likely in this case), it would have to be placed on the ballot and approved by the voters, but only after the measure either was passed by a two-thirds vote in the California State Legislature or by gathering enough signatures equal to 8% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, which I believe would be about 600k signatures. I'm sure you can recognize 2 problems right off the bat. First off, I doubt enough voters in California are smart enough to even give a sh!t about the CPUC, let alone understand it, and more importantly, the utilities, ALL of them, will outspend their opposition with whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. As much as the change is needed and I would like to see it, I just don't see it happening.

Just my Opinion

Opinions vary.

danfogel: The utilities will vastly outspend the opposition -- no doubt about that. There is another trick that utilities play that will help them: regularly, they give fat donations to nonprofit organizations. Then, when there is a public hearing on some controversial matter, those nonprofits show up and support the utility.

You may be right that reform won't come about. But the staggeringly high rates of the three investor-owned utilities -- Sempra, Edison and PG&E -- are finally arousing indignation, greatly because other rates, such as water, are surging and people are pinched.

I am not disagreeing with your skepticism. I am simply saying there is hope. Best, Don Bauder

Don, Always enjoy your reports on the CPUC, as well as what Mike Aguirre, Maria Severson, and Ray Lutz have accomplished.

Before last year, you did not express that there is any "hope."

Have Aguirre, Severson, and Lutz changed your mind?

Mike Knell: Yes, absolutely. Yesterday (February 3) the California legislature considered moves that would almost break up the CPUC. That is progress. Best, Don Bauder

Yes, people are suckers. But the answer may be blowin' in the cyber-wind. People are getting smarter, largely because this is the Age of the Hustle--EVERYWHERE you look. Especially at the institutional level, private, non-non-profit, government.

When the chickens come home to roost, and most of the Golden Gooses are slain or driven into poverty, consumption will go down. The signs of this are actually showing up in the statistics (blunt instruments for assessing sensitive phenomena to be sure, but because they are blunt, all the more reason to look for the reasons behind their radical swings).

Look carefully at the crossing-comparison pivot-points, as in the last three decades of the last century, especially the early nineties. It may take a Great Collapse to bomb us back into the Stone Age, from which both slobbering pathologies and mutual-assist Phoenixes may arise--unless the flip on its back will result in a graveyard spiral from which there is NO recovery.

The big problem with graphs is their thin lines; they need to be ribbons of varying widths.

Meat for a piece?

Flapper: I'm not sure I agree that the Golden Geese will be defeated. Best, Don Bauder

I hope you're right, but I believe you're wrong--unfortunately.

Flapper: I agree that this is the Age of the Hustle. It is also the Age of Colossal Greed. But the nation rose up against the Robber Barons more than a century ago. Admittedly, back then, the Robber Barons did not control the media. Now they do.

But I still think utility reform is possible. Call me Little Mary Sunshine. Best, Don Bauder

Another book.

The Golden Geese may well rise up, but by the time they get a round tuit, it will be toooo late. But their effective slaughter will mean a return to tribalism and monarchy. With no more goldeggs to steal, there will be no alternative left for the greedy except to turn on each other.

Flapper: We're well on our way to monarchy now. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: Is volatility good? Best, Don Bauder

Wow who would have thought Moonbeam in bed with the CPUC.

spudboy: Yes, Gov. Moonbeam is in bed with the CPUC. That means he is in bed with crooks. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: I never saw any segment of Mad Men on TV, but from the descriptions I have read, I think Gov. Brown has the same characteristics of those advertising scumbags. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: A career criminal should not be volatile. He should be very cool --- VERY cool. Best, Don Bauder

I filed a complaint against SDGandE a few years ago and they took action and dismissed the complaint without ever contacting me. I raised hell and they reinstated it but it was clear who they were operating for and it was not the rate payer.

shamus: Since the appointment of Peevey, the CPUC has been operating for the benefit of the three investor-owned utilities and their financiers on Wall Street. Best, Don Bauder

Little Mary Sunshine: It is more than three investor-owned utilities. AT&T and Verizon get benefits from the CPUC.

Mikeknell: You are right. I should have said three investor-owned electric and gas utilities. Best, Don Bauder

Pollyanna people: if you were interested in Roddenberry's Star Trek Next Generation (80s?) the human species evolves to gentler, kinder, wiser, for the betterment worldwide.

shirleyberan: George H.W. Bush was going to make the U.S. a kinder and gentler nation. It hasn't happened. Best, Don Bauder

Don - I know it's fiction, I'll think what I want.

shirleyberan: Be independent. Best, Don Bauder

Don - the Bush family is still delusional.

shirleyberan: Yes. Jeb may prove that conclusively. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan

I watched the Madoff miniseries. I don't know for sure how accurate the portrayals were but for now I'll assume they're accurate. From the miniseries I got the following impressions.

  1. Madoff had a big chip on his shoulder and was driven to "make it" out of his lower-middle class upbringing.

  2. He truly destroyed a lot of people's lives. Not just the investors - his family was torn asunder.

  3. Madoff had almost zero conscience and was good at rationalizing. I think he felt some pain and guilt for what happened to his family but it didn't seem that he felt any guilt at all towards the investors. Rather than feeling bad towards the investors he was ripping off he almost seemed to enjoy the game of it all and the fact that he was smart and manipulative enough to talk a lot of very wealthy people out of their money.

  4. The SEC appeared inept and incompetent. They missed several easy chances to go after him - including failing to even to a brief check on Madoff's trading accounts, and a Boston SEC leader ignoring a math whiz who had indisputable proof that Madoff's results were mathematically impossible.

ImJustABill: I thought the Madoff miniseries was superb. The acting was great -- particularly the ones who played Madoff and his wife.

Madoff is clearly a sociopath. He has no conscience, as you point out. He was not bothered one bit by the possibility that he could destroy the lives of his investors. After he did destroy their lives, he had no sympathy for them. Indeed, he kept saying that he made them rich. Huh? It was all funny money. He blamed others for everything that went wrong -- a classic sign of sociopathy.

The SEC is not just inept. It routinely lets the big money boys off the hook and chases those too small to defend themselves. The agency's lawyers routinely go to big Wall Street law firms for salaries of $1 million and $2 million a year and above. The lawyers get crooks off the hook and then go to the crooks' law firms. It's called the revolving door.

The agency still hires Wall Street lawyers to work in enforcement. This is not ineptitude; it is corruption. Best, Don Bauder

Harry Markopolos, the whistleblower, lived in fear that if Madoff knew Markopolos was going to the SEC, Madoff would have Markopolos killed.

Because of his fear, Mr. Markopolos made most of his complaints to the SEC anonymously, which is the primary reason that the Madoff Ponzi scheme went on so long.

Marcopolos wrote a book, "No One Would Listen," which explains his fears.

Because of my public complaints against AT&T and the CPUC (See www.AnAmericanPhoneNumber.com), I have had lots of people tell me that the CPUC or AT&T will have me killed. My response, they are so inept, that if they did try to have me killed, they would probably kill the wrong person.

Thanks for your efforts. We need more people like you Mike.

Mike Knell: I can't imagine any of the state's major utilities having you killed. Having lawyers harass you to near-death -- yes, of course. I have been through that with Mafia-tainted companies and some others. They will also have private detective firms put together a folder on you. This goes on all the time in American business, but it is kept quiet. Best, Don Bauder

Don, I'm not worried about anyone having me killed.

My comment was about how many people tell me I should be worried.

When people tell me I should be worried, I jokingly tell them that the CPUC/Utilities are so inept, that they would probably kill the wrong person.

It's not like in the movies. They don't make the threats or perform the hits themselves. There are creative ways to disappear you. Natural causes. ME's and coroners are inept, corrupt, and stupid. Where do you think new viruses come from? Don't eat out. Don't take vacations. If you feel a sting, don't slap the area. Call 911.

I was digging through some old files and came across a hand-written desk memo from by young boss warning me to stop talking to reporters. He dropped dead in a public place not long after that. Natural causes. He was a hyper, very frightened man. He was third from the top of the organization, and had a lot more pressure on him than I did. I suspect he started out innocently enough, but kissed his way up to a level of higher responsibility. I was threatened with death twice. I quit. Not that I expected promotion, but I would have feared it.

Look at who dies and look for a pattern. Look for who quits. Look at the gaseous turds that float to the top. Look at where they go upon retirement. Double-dippers, triple-dippers and up. Start attending the bars frequented by the staff. Be subtle. Talk football--anything but what you want to know, but listen to whatever they want to talk about. Do not buy drinks--at least right away. Don't rush. Don't tell the truth about anything. Make sure your stories are consistent. Eventually, it will come out, but only when they're ready. Use common sense, but do not try to be clever. Ergo, ego goeth before a fall.

Flapper: I got four or five death or maiming threats. It goes with the territory. Best, Don Bauder

I think the SEC needs a different compensation scheme. If taxpayers have to pay a few brilliant lawyers and accountants, say, $1M / year, then that might be money well spent.

Thanks ImJustABill :

If I do succeed in my particular case, it will be, in part, by riding the coat-tails of Aguirre, Severson, Lutz, as well as Officials with the City of San Bruno.

There is a compensation scheme for people working outside the SEC. In Harry Markopolos's book, "No One Would Listen," he explains how the process works.

The problem with giving SEC employees bonuses for exposing frauds, is that it would be like giving bonuses to police officers for arresting people. It can't be done without conflict of interest, and abuse.

They don't have to have bonus-based compensation. Maybe just pay a high enough salary to make an SEC career a viable option for the most talented legal and financial minds. I don't know how much that is, but maybe if the SEC paid, say, up to several hundred thousand / year to their best attorneys some brilliant attorneys might be willing to forgo higher salaries in the private sector in favor of working for the SEC.

I think if they're paying, say, below 200K then the lure of the revolving door and 1M+ private sector salary + bonus is too high.

mikeknell: The SEC lawyer who gets a bonus for exposing fraud among the big boys will never get hired by the big boys' law firms. Best, Don Bauder

ImJustABill: Actually, being a securities lawyer is quite difficult and requires a lot of knowledge, unlike some legal specialties. Yet SEC lawyers are not paid so well. Why? Congress, which is in the pocket of Wall Street, doesn't allocate money to the SEC. Best, Don Bauder

Flapper: I've written a lot about the revolving door and Congress under-allocating funds to the SEC. Check the Reader search engine for my pieces on Gary Aguirre. (That's Gary, Mike's brother.) Best, Don Bauder

ImJustABill - pbs.org has a Frontline report timeline from 1963, parent's Gibraltar Securities (under his mom's name because of dad's IRS problems) had trouble after being investigated by SEC. Apparently not good role models. Attachment disorder?

I think a lot people with various social disorders - from sociopathy to pychopathy - tend to do very well in the higher levels of business and finance. Instead of punishing those who fail to play by the rules the system rewards them.

ImJustABill: From my 50+ years writing about corporations, I have to agree with you. That hardly means that all CEOs are sociopaths. But some are. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: There was a Gibraltar Global Securities based in the tax and secrecy haven of the Bahamas. It got in trouble with the SEC, but it was in 2013. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: I am not familiar with a Gibraltar Securities going back that far Best, Don Bauder

Flapper: That was bak in 2014. Best, Don Bauder

Flapper; Sorry. The use of "bak" was a typo. Best, Don Bauder

Log in to comment

Skip Ad