An SDG&E crew works on a power pole. Photo courtesy of the company

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article did not state clearly that the council’s role in the franchise agreement process is advisory until bids have been received.

San Diego’s utilities future remains undecided after the City Council debated terms for a franchise agreement for its electric and natural gas provider this week.

The council was asked Thursday to agree on the terms it was looking for in the agreement for one of the city’s most valuable assets, valued at more than $6.2 billion.

San Diego Gas & Electric has been the sole provider of natural gas and electric utility services for San Diego since 1920. The current franchise agreement, finalized in 1970, is set to expire Jan. 17, 2021. San Diego is California’s largest city to have franchise agreements with its utilities.

The terms, had they been approved Thursday, would have opened the bidding process for any interested entities to bid on the franchise agreement. They were presented to the council for input and did not technically require council approval.

In the coming weeks, the city will release the final terms of the bid document, which will include input received from the public and the council, and the bidding process will begin, officials with Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office told City News Service on Saturday.

Once bidding is concluded and a franchise is awarded, the agreement will go to the full council, requiring two-thirds approval.

Howard Golub, a consultant for JVJ Pacific Consulting, which the city hired to analyze its needs, recommended the minimum bid in the terms should be $62 million — low enough to encourage bids but not so low the city and its residents are suffocated by high rates and later surcharges with no money back to show for it, he said.

“This is the floor, not the ceiling,” Golub said.

Golub also recommended franchise fees of 3.5% for natural gas and 3% for electric and a 20-year term with the bidder the city chooses.

SDG&E is owned by Sempra Energy, an international corporation based in San Diego. Warren Buffett-owned Berkshire Hathaway has expressed interest in the bidding process.

An initial proposal by Council President Georgette Gomez was rejected 6-3. It included a provision similar to that of Chula Vista, with a 10-year deal with an automatic renewal if the franchisee had been a “good partner.”

An amendment by Councilwoman Monica Montgomery raised the minimum bid from the 1% of total value of $62 million to 5%, or $310 million. It also included a climate equity fund and the provision to make the highest bidder subject to collective bargaining from employees who were working for SDG&E — in case that company does not win the bid.

“We can’t be working toward a just climate future if our partner undermines that,” Gomez said.

Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell then proposed terms to accept all of JVJ’s recommendations with the option to “explore” the climate equity fund. This failed 5-4, with multiple council members switching votes during discussion as amendments were added and removed.

Councilman Chris Cate asked for a provision to see and consider all bids for the franchise agreement regardless of the bid offered — dependent on how closely each bidder met the city’s terms.

Councilwoman Vivian Moreno said the lack of concrete plan to establish and fund the climate equity fund — which she said would be funded by the minimum bid and would add “green” elements to portions of the city often underserved — was automatically unacceptable for her.

The council’s lack of consensus prompted some speculation about the possibility of municipalizing the city’s gas and electric services.

“I recommend a franchise agreement first,” Golub said. “And if that’s not feasible, move to a publicly owned utility.”

High interest rates in 1970 prevented the city from seriously examining that route, but much lower interest rates now make a public-owned utility more feasible, Golub said.

According to valuations by business process management company NewGen, the city could buy out SDG&E’s infrastructure at a fair market rate of just over $3 billion.

According to Golub’s recommendations, the city should not do what it did in 1970 — accept a franchise agreement it wasn’t happy with because SDG&E was the sole bidder.

More than 80 members of the public called in to the meeting to express support for a franchise renewal of SDG&E or for municipalization.

The callers were fairly evenly split, with many of the calls in support of extending the existing franchise agreement with SDG&E coming from employees with the company or those representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local representing SDG&E workers.

They claimed maintaining jobs, 100 years of history with the city and “keeping it local” as reasons to renew the franchise as soon as possible for 20 years or more.

Opponents to moving any franchise agreement forward claimed SDG&E’s perceived lack of reliability, its high utility costs and its parent company’s involvement in fracking are all reasons to avoid franchising with SDG&E.

Some of them made impassioned pleas to municipalize the city’s gas and electric, essentially making the city take on the burden of providing the utilities.

One man urged the council to vote no and do further study on the potential of municipalization and the ramifications of not doing so.

“When this goes sideways, and it will, you can’t say you didn’t know,” he said.

Updated at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020

— City News Service

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