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Following The Money In San Diego’s Community Choice Debate

A sign on SDG&E's headquarters appears in this undated photo.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: A sign on SDG&E's headquarters appears in this undated photo.

Several organizations skeptical of community choice energy are supported by SDG&E, which has sought to halt the energy program's expansion across the state.

San Diego's debate over community choice energy has unleashed a flurry of lobbying and press conferences, as city officials weigh whether the alternative energy procurement program is the best way for San Diego to reach 100 percent clean energy.

Many community choice skeptics have one thing in common: financial support from SDG&E, a company that has fought the expansion of community choice statewide.

Community choice allows local governments to purchase energy on behalf of their residents, instead of private utilities. Governments find it attractive because it gives them more control over their local renewable energy goals and the rates their constituents pay. Programs have already been launched in several cities and counties across the state.

RELATED: Sempra Services Video Leaves Out Key Facts On Community Choice

Last month, several organizations announced their formation of the "Clear the Air Coalition," a group seeking to slow down San Diego's exploration of community choice. Among the coalition members is Gerald Brown, executive director of the United African American Ministerial Action Council, a local faith-based nonprofit.

The organization's website lists SDG&E among its longtime supporters and sponsors. Asked after a press conference last week whether the utility's support for his organization influenced his skepticism of the energy program, Brown said it did not — and he said the question was biased.

"It's almost like an insult when people ask me this," Brown said. "They're saying you've been bought and paid for, and that's not true at all. ... I came down today because I believe in the cause. I don't come out because somebody gave me money."

SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao said in a statement: "SDG&E has no involvement in the Clear the Air Coalition."

Brown said his organization deals with poverty in San Diego's underserved communities, and that he saw community choice as a financial risk to those communities.

"Let's make sure that we have crossed every 't' and dotted every 'i,' that we know about every penny that is going to be spent," he said. "The citizens have a right to have that information, and especially … if the cost is going to be put on their shoulders."

A peer-reviewed study commissioned by the city found a community choice program was feasible and could offer cheaper and greener electricity than SDG&E.

Other Clear the Air Coalition members supported by SDG&E include the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, the Industrial Environmental Association, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Asian Business Association of San Diego. The coalition also includes Frank Urtasun, a vice president of Sempra Services, a marketing and lobbying district set up by SDG&E's parent company, and Lani Lutar, a lobbyist hired by Sempra Services.

There is also a coalition of groups supporting community choice in San Diego that includes some businesses and several environmental organizations. Among them is Daniel Sullivan, founder of Sullivan Solar Power.

Many community choice programs offer extra incentives for residents to install rooftop solar panels. Sullivan said his company's main mission is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by putting solar panels on as many roofs as possible.

"Yes, we have to make money in order to achieve our ends," he said. "But we're not in this business so that a few people in the company can get wealthy."

DISCLOSURE: Sullivan Solar Power is a funder of KPBS.

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