SDG&E Wants A Minimum Rate Hike
KPBS Roundtable / August 16, 2019
SDG&E requests a rate increase due to growing use of solar energy, documents show how a building renovation at SDSU was mishandled, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park says the birth of a new rhino will help save an endangered species.
Speaker 1: 00:01 Going solar brings a cheaper energy bill, but SDG and e says it's gone too far. Now the utility wants a major hike on it's minimum payments. It's a project that second students, but it didn't have to how San Diego State University, he mistakenly rushed through repairs at one of its buildings on campus and had a breakthrough for the San Diego Zoo. Safari Park y one rhinos birth could help save an entire species. Hi Mark Sour the KPBS round table starts now.
Speaker 2: 00:38 [inaudible]
Speaker 1: 00:42 welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm mark Sauer and joining me at the KPBS round table today report. Matt Hoffman of KPBS News. Eric Anderson, environment reporter for KPBS news and reporting intern Bella Ross of I new source. Well file this under no good deed goes unpunished, tens of thousands of environmentally conscious San Diego ans have switched to rooftop solar power. So many are switching that San Diego gas and electric wants to boost its minimum bill to customers by a lot. And Matt start there with the specifics of this proposal. What do they want to do?
Speaker 3: 01:17 Right? So right now, STG has a minimum bill amount for customers that's $10 a month. They want to increase that to $38 a month. And basically I say the biggest reason that they need to do this is that this influx of solar customers, they have about 160,000 households on solar right now. And they say that they're just not paying their full, uh, their full share in terms of using the grid. Um, if the, even if they're putting credits back onto the grid in terms of solar or, um, when they're not, when they're not using solar, they're just not paying their fair share. And they're saying that people who don't have solar, which is about 88% of their customers are having to subsidize them for their access to the grid.
Speaker 1: 01:55 Okay. So I, I have, I happen to have solar, but those of us who have solar, we're not using any energy because our system is enough to cover all our energy needs. But we're still paying that $10 a month right now too, to support the infrastructure, the grid itself. And you're saying that's gonna almost quadruple.
Speaker 3: 02:11 Well, and I think it's, it's fair to say that this is just an ask from STG. Just a proposal. Yeah, it's just a proposal. I mean the California Public Utilities Commission could, they could reject the completely, um, but usually they usually meet somewhere in the middle here. Um, but yeah, your bill, if you right now, if you have a $0 million bill or if you have like a, some people have a $20 bill or on seller, it could go up if they get what they want.
Speaker 1: 02:31 Alright, so not surprisingly, a critics are quick to respond. We've got a bright, uh, excuse me a bite here. Nicole Capra, it's executive director of the climate action campaign. Let's hear from her. [inaudible]
Speaker 4: 02:43 it's just a pure paragraph. I mean, they want to squash competition. They don't want people to install rooftop solar. They don't want people to make their homes energy efficient. They do want to encourage even more energies and unfortunately they want to make maximize profit at our, and it's unacceptable.
Speaker 2: 03:01 Okay.
Speaker 1: 03:01 All right. And we're going to go right back into another clip here. This is from SDG and e spokesman West Jones a, his response,
Speaker 5: 03:09 this proposal, minimum bill amounts and even the fixed charge, a part part of that proposal, this is revenue neutral. This company will not make more money as a result of those proposals. This is about equity. This is about making sure, regardless of the customer type, everybody's paying their fair share to access the grid.
Speaker 1: 03:26 All right, so there's going to be some real debate on that in terms of everybody paying their fair share versus cause this is a for profit company. This is a a company that's
Speaker 3: 03:35 making money for their shareholders, right? Right. Yeah, and as you heard STG say, they claimed that this is revenue neutral. So are they saying it's not a hike, it's just all about equity as is what they keep saying. They say right now there's a $400 million cost shift from solar to non-solar. Meaning they're saying that solar customers are underpaying about $400 million per year. They said in 2013 that was about 200 million. But as most solar customers have come on, they say that that cost shift has gone a lot higher. Eric. And how did they get to the $400 million number? Huh? How do you determine how much the cost of hooking up to the grid actually is? Right. So STG news says they have a minimum cost for each customer. Um, they say the average customer is about $90 to access the grid. That's not solar. Uh, we've asked them for details about that $400 million number after we did the story this week, we heard a lot of pushback from solar companies saying that's like $2,500 per household.
Speaker 3: 04:27 There they're saying annually are underpaying, um, for their access to, to the grid. Uh, St Genie, they're currently working to get back to us on that. Um, but they do say that they have a methodology of how they calculate that. So if, if a customer is paying their electricity bill based on the amount of the electricity that they use, um, isn't the cost of the grid figured into that? That transaction isn't it already included something that the PUC is, is looked at, right. And that that's what that $10 minimum bill was before. And apparently this had gone to the CPC and they said that the $10 bill is, is that that's enough for these people to cover the costs. But I see genie says that that's changing now with a lot more people going, going solar. They're saying that theirs, that they're not paying into, um, t t t to support the grid. Basically you're saying that that's changing and that $10 minimum needs to go up. It's also worth noting too, that this might not just impact solar customers. I mean there's people,
Speaker 1: 05:21 yeah, I was going to say, besides solar, I mean these are the folks who you would expect would, we'd see their bills rise under this proposal,
Speaker 3: 05:27 right? Yeah. I mean you talked to several people have like $19 bills, $15 bill. Some have $0 million bills cause they put credits back on. Um, but there's also people, um, who live in like small apartments who have a $30 bill or who have a $25 bill. Um, now that is low. Um, but SDG e says if this proposal were to go in their favor, if it were to go into effect, the $38 minimum bill, they say at least 20% of customers would see a, a bill increased.
Speaker 1: 05:51 Again, we're just talking about electric bills here because the, there's a g in there too. There's gas right. Somebody me, even though I have solar,
Speaker 3: 05:58 I've got a lot of gas appliances too. So you're paying for obviously the use of natural. Yeah. Yeah we are. We're just talking about solar. Um, and uh, with, there's a lot of lots of batteries coming on now cause basically when you have solar, you still have to be connected to the grid usually because you just get solar during the day. It was rainy days is radiation. It's cloudy days at night. You have to, it's nights, third grade. I mean, if you had a battery and you went off the grid, then you wouldn't have to deal with STG, STG at all hypothetically. Um, but they're saying to still be connected to the grid, whether you're giving power or taking power, they're saying that those costs are going up. No, SDG and e has higher rates than California's other two main utilities and we're about as high as any place in the nation or arena.
Speaker 3: 06:34 Right. Yeah. And I talked to STG today actually, and they, they definitely acknowledged that they have some of the highest rates, um, in, in California. Uh, and they say that, I mean, they, they listed off a number of things of why they say that is they say they've invested over the last 10 years over $1 billion in, in fire prevention. They say that a lot of their lines are underground, which is a lot more expensive. They have a smaller customer base here in San Diego, so the disbursement of the rates has to be higher. And they say that also that they use a lot of renewables, I think 45%, uh, of STG news powers renewable right now. And they say that that's more expensive. So they're, that's how they're kind of justifying why these rates are so high. No, the whole issue of community choice, we've talked about that, uh, on the show before.
Speaker 3: 07:16 It's been backed by a San Diego Mirror. Kevin Faulkner and critics or utility are pushing for that. Just give us the thumbnail in it. Yeah, there's a lot of cities right now that are looking at community choice energy, uh, community choice energy or Community Choice Aggregation, CCE or cc unfortunate name, unfortunately, and they're a little complicated. Basically it's where like a local municipality, um, would control the buying and selling electricity. Um, right now Solana beach has formed a CCEE. Um, and so that, that introduces competition to the market. That's why you see people like the climate action campaign saying if we have these, um, community choice energies, uh, these companies come in, well not companies, it's more like nonprofits that are created, like the city of San Diego. Chulavista they're looking to make a JPA joint powers agreement where they could serve more customers. Basically it introduces competition to the market. Um, and they can provide different incentives cause there's not, like you said, there's no shareholders for them, so they can put the money back.
Speaker 3: 08:11 They can make sure that people who have solar bills stay lower. Let's see. So does this early, the, the, the, uh, SDG and e's entire business model that they've been operating under for the last 25 years is going out the window? Well, so, and I think it's important to note too. So STG, they don't make any money, uh, on the billing of, of electricity. They make their money on the distribution and the transmission of energy. Um, and so, and they get a guaranteed rate of return. They get a guaranteed rate of return on that. So, and that's why some critics are saying that they don't want solar is because with solar they say there's less infrastructure for the grid. Um, but STG pushes back on that saying that no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Even if you have solar, there's still grid infrastructure that needs to be paid for.
Speaker 3: 08:54 Um, but yeah, you know, at SDG neither not allowed to say whether they do or don't like CCES. Uh, according to the California Public Utilities Commission, they didn't say they support community choice, but you have to think that it's definitely going to give them competition. It might force them to lower rates or they might not, as we've talked about before on the show, they weren't crazy about community choice has kinda brought kicking and screaming to it. I should say. They noted today that they're going to a utility, so they're going to have a lot more charging stations for, uh, buses and bigger vehicles. They are encouraging electric, uh, that way, not just a for passenger cars. And also, I mean, we're in the middle of a major shift here in California and places like San Diego or we've got these clean energy plans and the shift to alternative and clean energy is yes, is happening and it's affecting utilities from here to Europe.
Speaker 3: 09:44 Right. And that's what STG kind of says it, that they're seeing the shift happening. Now they say that they're definitely not the only utility that, that seeing this, I know that there's a utility in Sacramento that's also pushing for a new minimum bill increase that are saying it's not just isolated to them. Uh, they do have some of the highest percentage of customers that are solar than nation. They say about 12% right now or 160,000 almost at a time on this. Oh, what's the process of for this proposal and how long will it take before we see what happens here? So, right, right, right now it's going through the California Public Utilities Commission. They expected decision, um, in the first quarter of 2020. So that's about spring of 2020. I'm in, like I said, this isn't ask for [inaudible] genie. It's probably not what they're going to get.
Speaker 3: 10:20 Usually they end up somewhere in the middle. But the CPC, they could reject the entire proposal and say stay at 10 all right, we'll be watching that one on a follow up on that one. The race was on for renovating a building here on the campus of San Diego State University. Spend money on upgrades to the professional studies and fine arts building by June 30th of this year or risk losing $2 million in funding for a two point $5 million project. But that date was off by a year and the resulting race to renovate a resulted in a project that went terribly wrong. So a Bella start with that deadline. What did SDSU official say about what the thought, why they had to hurry?
Speaker 6: 10:58 So there was this June 30th fun finding that line that you mentioned for part of the products funds. The project was initially about a $2 million project and um, $500,000 of that was subject to this funding deadline that you mentioned. So there were a couple of delays in how the project was being done. There were weather delays, I had issues getting the permits and they were getting inching closer and closer to this funding deadline. And so that's kind of what ended done. Ended up forcing them to Russia product in the end because they were going to lose some of the funds. But you know, as you mentioned, that funding deadline ended up being a year off and they didn't find this out until after the fact. So that ended up being, you know, another ripple and you know, all the issues that came with this project
Speaker 3: 11:36 and we're going to get into it, some of these details now. But I mean that's just astounding when people say, how could you have missed this thing by a year?
Speaker 6: 11:43 Yeah. I mean I don't, I don't even really know how it happened. They just, they were telling us, you know, we thought it was one year and now it was after the deadline had already passed. They found out that it wasn't, so, you know, this really, this information really did come too late for them.
Speaker 1: 11:57 Yeah. So in interest of full disclosure, San Diego state holds the broadcasting license for KPBS. Tell us about this building a Bella, how many floors, what's it used for? Why was the renovation project needed?
Speaker 6: 12:08 So, you know, this building really touches everybody on campus. It's um, it's a four story building and its main purpose is housing, the, um, professional studies and fine arts school. So that includes the school of journalism, hospitality, public administration. And then on top of that, there's a small library in the building and Chinese learning center. There's even some bio labs in the space. So it really does how's a lot of people in, most people on campus end up in there at one point or another. And then, um, but you know, the building was built in the 50s. It's very old. And you know, people have said since this project started, you know, some of the issues that this building is seeing have been here for over 20 years now. So
Speaker 1: 12:44 in some of those issues that, whether you had a leaky roof to begin with, right?
Speaker 6: 12:47 Well, yeah, the leaky roof was, um, you know, it was a symptom of the product that was a symptom of them doing this project incorrectly, but the roof was very old. There were some issues with the temperature in the building. Sometimes it's really hard. Sometimes it was really cold. The bathrooms are really old. There's all kinds of issues. So
Speaker 1: 13:02 really needed an upgrade.
Speaker 6: 13:03 Yeah. This, this roofing project was part of, um, you know, a larger project to renovate the building and kind of bring it up.
Speaker 1: 13:09 And ideally you'd of course do this over summer when you've got the biggest break, nobody's around building shutdown and you can take your time and do this whole project. Right.
Speaker 6: 13:19 Yeah. You know, that was the idea. Initially it was supposed to be done last summer and, um, you know, that didn't happen. They had some issues getting the permits that they needed in time, but they didn't want to do it during the school year when people were gonna be in the building. It would have been a little bit too disruptive. So, you know, instead of, um, postponing it until this next summer because of that funding deadline that we mentioned, they did it over winter break, but that's only a month. So you know, they didn't really have the time that they needed.
Speaker 1: 13:42 All right. So it's late January. What winter students or faculty back in this a professional studies and fine arts building. What happened?
Speaker 6: 13:49 So they ended up having to use this new material because as you mentioned, the leaks in the roof, they were using a different material initially, but it was really rainy this winter as many of you probably remember and cause a lot of leaks in the building.
Speaker 1: 14:02 So some material [inaudible] where you can patch in the rain. It's designed to work with wet surfaces.
Speaker 6: 14:07 Yeah. So they started using the new material and you know, it was working the patch, the roof, but it did create these really strong odors and they weren't leaving the building. And because of the weather delays and having to use a new material, the product ended up getting delayed and they couldn't really stop it at this point. So they had to continue to do the work while people were in the building, which was initially something they were trying to avoid.
Speaker 1: 14:26 And what are they complaining on at this point?
Speaker 6: 14:28 Um, so yeah, the first day that they started using this new material, they immediately started getting complaints from people in the building. And that included, um, headaches, migraines, nosebleeds. Um, some people said they were vomiting. It really was all kinds of issues that people were seeing
Speaker 1: 14:42 and the university's response initially.
Speaker 6: 14:44 Um, so they did test almost immediately, um, in the building. They did some tasks, but nothing was really coming up. And then, um, you know, throughout the next few weeks I were really doing everything that they could to try to reduce the odors in the building, but nothing was working. Um, you know, I talked to an expert who was saying normally you would do some kind of assessment to make sure that these issues want to happen in the building. And we found out later that the fresh air events for the building that bring in fresh air to the building were on the roof. So it was basically,
Speaker 1: 15:10 well, proximity is right there to this material is being used.
Speaker 6: 15:13 Yeah. It was basically pumping this chemical vapors throughout the entire building and it made it really hard then to get those odors out.
Speaker 1: 15:19 Right. And it's unfortunately, it was in the school of journalism, right. People started to talk about this. Uh, and in fact, uh, there were a couple of big public meetings as well. Right?
Speaker 6: 15:29 Yeah. So I came a little bit later on, but, um, yeah, I personally did have a number of classes in the building because it was, um, the school of journalism and you can tell that things weren't quite right in the space. There was this really intense, um, odor throughout the building for a couple months. And, you know, some offices were closed, classes were getting relocated. Um, but you know, at this point we didn't really have any answers. Those public meetings came a little bit later on and that's where we were finally able to get the information we needed.
Speaker 1: 15:54 And there were some complaints early on about transparency. What are the university officials you interviewed finally say in hindsight?
Speaker 6: 16:02 So in hindsight, you know, they really did. Um, it seems like the university really has recognized that the communication, the level of communication they offered, um, to this project wasn't sufficient. People weren't notified about the earliest. The whole campus community wasn't notified about the odor issues until mid March. W at that point, the papers had been in the building for, you know, at least a month and a half before students even knew that this was happening. Um, and so they, it seems like the university has recognized that and they're doing things, um, you know, to make that better. But on some other points, they, um, you know, wouldn't talk so much. So I asked them, for instance, you know, who's being held accountable for this? Obviously there were mistakes made and they were saying, you know, as an institution, I'll take the blame, but, um, they're not gonna, you know, be firing anybody at this point. And that's something that a lot of people open, skeptical about.
Speaker 1: 16:48 And the overall cost, uh, on this project after this, a big setback.
Speaker 6: 16:53 So the initial amount that this project was supposed to cost was around $2 million. So in just update the building and renovate the roof. Um, but then after all of this stuff happened, um, they're going to be in spending another up to $12 million on the building. And so that's going to be, that's going to include some outstanding renovations. Like I mentioned, there have been issues that have been persisting in the building for over 20 years, so they're going to be addressing some of that. And then after all this drama with the roof, they're going to be spending two point $5 million to install on a completely new roof on the building. So it'll be nice for people who have worked in the building for a long time, but you know, it's going to be a while before it's back to normal.
Speaker 1: 17:27 Okay. And maybe not by the time school starts here?
Speaker 6: 17:30 Definitely not. So at this point, um, there aren't going to be any classes in the building next semester. Um, the building is open. I've been in there a few times and it's definitely under construction. I'm the only classes that'll be, there are few biology labs, but they're saying now that the building's going to be put out regular use for up to two years. So it's going to be a while before things about it.
Speaker 1: 17:47 Okay. Wow. Really good story. Very interesting.
Speaker 7: 17:50 We're going to move on a well, this tod is cute but hardly little over 220 pounds and not even three weeks old. Not surprisingly. It's a rhinoceros that we're talking about. It's name is Edward. His birth is beyond special. And Eric explained why the conception of birth of this particular rhino at the San Diego Zoo made news worldwide. Well, this is only the second rhino on the planet to have been conceived artificially using a frozen sperm sample. Um, and it's part of this big overall program that the San Diego Zoo has, uh, to try to help, uh, related subspecies. Now, uh, Edward, which is the young ones name and his mom, Victoria, uh, mom Victoria was, uh, artificially inseminated back in March of 2018. She's carried him for 490 days, uh, before giving birth a couple of weeks ago. Uh, and he's very healthy. He's very rambunctious. Uh, he's doing everything that a, a rhino, his h should do, but, uh, Victoria is a southern white rhino and there are five other southern white rhinos in this off exhibit area at the San Diego Zoo safari park.
Speaker 7: 18:56 And they will eventually, hopefully be surrogates for us southern black or are not a southern black writer, but a northern white rhino, uh, northern white rhinos. There are only two left on the planet. They both live in Kenya right now. Um, and they will likely, um, pass on a die before this recovery effort gets underway. So it may end up being a case where a species goes extinct for a few years and then this program will help kind of bring it back. Victoria is intended to be a surrogate for a northern white embryo, uh, that they would implant in her. Um, the other five, uh, females that are back there are intended to be the same thing as well. All right, we've got a clip here. I wanted to play. You interviewed Barbara Duran Zoo's chief re, uh, reproductive, uh, physiologist. Here's what she had to say off how important Victoria has become.
Speaker 4: 19:49 The other important thing about this pregnancy is, and now we know that Victoria is what we call a proven female, so she, we know she can conceive, she can carry a fetus to term, she can give birth and she can take care of it. That's really important for us because in the future Victoria and the other girls here at the Rhino rescue center are going to be surrogates for northern white rhino embryos who will be transferred into them for gestation. So we have to know that they're capable of carrying those rhinos to birth
Speaker 7: 20:18 and the zoo hoping to celebrate another rare birth soon. Ah, there is another rhino there that is pregnant right now. Amani, she's expecting sometime in November. They're actively trying to get two more of those rhinos pregnant through artificial insemination. Once a female has gotten pregnant through artificial insemination, they're going to try embryo implantation with a southern wide embryo and if both of those pregnancies work, then they figure that they're candidates for embryo implantation with a northern Rhino, which is much more rare I should say. There is a PR, a parallel project going on. At the same time, they're trying to figure out what the protocols are for creating a sperm and eggs from skin cell samples that they have that are frozen northern white skin cell samples. Um, and that's going on concurrently with, with, with this physical effort at the safari park. When those two processes converge, it might be good news for the northern White Rhino.
Speaker 7: 21:13 All right, now this is very hopeful news from the San Diego, a zoo and the safari park comes during a week when the Trump administration is kind of dealing, uh, a death blow. They're kind of gutting the, uh, the endangered species act. Explain what, what happened this week. Yeah. The Trump administration issued some new rules this week about how, uh, the fish and wildlife service will go about determining whether a species is threatened or in danger. And then what happens as a result of that threatened or endangered species a designation. Right now, if a species is found to be threatened or endangered based solely on, on biological issues, scientific issues, both the threatened and the endangered would get, uh, habitat protection, um, uh, sweeping habitat protection, the federal lands, they would, yeah, sure. Uh, the Trump administration wants to, uh, remove that from the threatened species, not give them the same level of protection.
Speaker 7: 22:07 And they also want to include something else. They want the fish and wildlife service to come up with an economic analysis to see what, what impact it would have. Uh, if you designate a species as critically endangered, um, and they can't really make a decision because the law says you can't make a decision based on economics. Uh, but the fish and wildlife service will have to go through this process. And there is fear that once they do that, and that's part of the discussion, it will have an influence on the final decision. And the idea here is to open federal lands to more commercial interests like, um, mining and drilling. And it's not what they said explicitly when they were talking about the rule changes. But other people have looked at this and they've said, yeah, clearly every story about it's that context met. I know you've been covering this for a long time.
Speaker 7: 22:52 How did, how did we get here? I mean, is it like poaching it and dangerous these rhinos and then how long are these rounds going to stay at the zoo? Are they going to put it back in the wild eventually or, um, a good, good questions. Uh, how they got here? Uh, it's a combination of poaching and war, um, in their natural habitat as the Congo where they're most common in the wild or they were most common in the wild. Um, they were poached, uh, pretty aggressively. And then the effort to try to stop that poaching was hampered by the fact that that region has been under a civil war for, for many, many years. So, uh, they just got to the edge. Uh, where does it go? The idea, what, what researchers want to do is to be able to create a self-sustaining herd of northern white rhinos, whether that's in captivity or out in the wild. I think that question still remains to be seen, but they want to have a heard of northern white rhinos that can reproduce on their own. They have enough genetic diversity to do so.
Speaker 1: 23:48 No, the endangered species act that had strong bipartisan support supplies signed by a Republican president decades ago. Uh, how, uh, effective is it Ben? It's pretty darn effective. Even the u s symbol of the Bald Eagles,
Speaker 7: 24:01 simple, a bald eagle, no longer on the endangered species list because it was successfully recovered. We have eagles here in San Diego County because of the work that was done into that. So you can make the case that it was very successful and what it's done. And what it basically did was it set a standard. It said, look, you have to, if this species is threatened, you have to do what you can to protect it and to make sure that it thrives moving forward. And with the United Nations report out saying that we lose stand, you know, we're on the precipice of losing a million more species. Um, it doesn't seem like the timing is very good to try to pull back some of those protections under US law.
Speaker 1: 24:37 And it's particularly a precarious timing. UN study just released in May said a extinction rates are just going off the charts now compared to the last 10 million years.
Speaker 7: 24:48 Sure. The one, one thing that I think is also important to note in the rules that were issued this week by the Trump administration, uh, it, they're not there. They don't look backwards. So any species that's already protected are already enjoying protections, will enjoy those protections. It's just moving forward. And of course they have been challenged. State of California has challenged them. Uh, legally. Uh, there are some who think that, that these, uh, rule changes are not legal because the endangered species access specifically in the language of the law that you can't use an economic analysis to make a determination. Um, and so those things will be challenging.
Speaker 1: 25:24 All right, so we're out of time, but we'll look forward to see what happens with those challenges moving forward. And that does wrap up another week of stories at the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests, Matt Hoffman of KPBS News, Eric Anderson, also of KPBS news and Bella Ross up. I knew source, our partner, and a reminder. All the stories we discussed today are available on our website, kpbs.org I'm mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today and join us again next week on the round table. [inaudible].