Jan. 14 2015 09:37 AM

Environmentalist Nicole Capretz takes on SDG&E with new watchdog group

Nicole Capretz, executive director of the newly formed Climate Action Campaign (left), and operations director Kath Rogers
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

    San Diego's not the only city thinking about kicking its fossil-fuel habit. While the city's draft Climate Action Plan calls for using all renewable energy by 2035, San Jose aims to hit that target by 2022. San Francisco may completely ditch carbon-based electricity by 2020. And using hydropower, Aspen, Colorado, could go completely green this year.

    But like many cities, San Diego's plan is not set in stone. Before a final version is presented for City Council approval, the document must undergo months of public review, during which language can be tweaked and goals shifted.

    That's why the chief architect of the climate plan, Nicole Capretz, is gearing up for a fight. In preparation, Capretz, a two-time City Council staffer and one of the region's most energetic environmentalists, recently launched her own advocacy group, Climate Action Campaign.

    In its fledgling stages, the nonprofit is a two-person team with one basic mission: "We will be playing a watchdog role to make sure the city is implementing the document in the timeline we outlined," she explained.

    Central to her vision is something called community choice aggregation (CCA), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Capretz believes, will stop at nothing to prevent the city from adopting it.

    "Unfortunately, they're going to mislead the public about what community choice is and what it means," she said. "They will search for emissaries to convey their message."

    SDG&E officials deny this. They supported a bill in the state Legislature last year that activists said would have dealt a deathblow to CCA. But, under state law, utilities are prohibited from marketing or lobbying against the development of a particular CCA program, and SDG&E has pledged to comply.

    "When it comes to CCA, we support our customers' right to choose its electricity-service provider, and that includes a CCA," said SDG&E spokesperson Amber Albrecht.

    Nonetheless, Capretz is ready for battle, which she says will kick off this spring when the city is expected to release a feasibility study estimating electrical costs for ratepayers under the CCA program.

    "The minute that study goes public is the minute the war is on," she said. "I know SDG&E will be tearing apart every word."

    If Capretz seems zealous about the climate plan, perhaps it's because she's labored over the city's most important environmental document for more than four years, shepherding it through some tumultuous terrain.

    As far back as 2010, as a policy director for the Environmental Health Coalition, she chaired a citizens advisory committee that routinely sparred with then-Mayor Jerry Sanders over whether the climate plan should have legally binding mandates.

    "We had a really progressive group that wanted to develop an ambitious climate action plan, and any kind of recommendation we would put forward, the mayor would veto," she said. "At the end of the day, we wanted everything to be enforceable, and they wanted everything to be voluntary."

    As a former staffer for environment-focused Councilmember Donna Frye, Capretz was used to facing off against the city's conservative establishment. And when Sanders effectively put the climate plan on a shelf, she refused to give up.

    At the time, counties in Northern California had started implementing CCAs, and the idea was getting a lot attention in environmental circles. Under state law, municipalities can form a public entity—often a joint-powers authority—that takes control over a service area's "power portfolio." That means the agency decides, through a public board, where to buy energy and designs rate plans for its customers.

    "It's a public process that people are a part of," said Kath Rogers, operations director for the Climate Action Campaign. "Right now, our whole energy system here in San Diego is only accountable to shareholders and profits."

    Traditionally, private, investor-owned utilities negotiate contracts with power providers, whether they're natural-gas companies or solar fields in the desert. To comply with state mandates, utilities have in recent years increased the amount of power they buy from renewable sources, and recently, SDG&E announced that it's developing a pilot program, which could compete with a CCA.

    "The goal of getting to 100-percent renewable energy, I think there's a number of ways that that could happen," SDG&E's Albrecht said. "We share the same desire to achieve the greenhouse-gas reductions, but there's also a number of ways to achieve that."

    Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner loved the idea of handing the authority of where to buy power over to a public entity, and Capretz and others were encouraged by his support. However, Filner didn't get much done before he resigned amid scandal.

    In the meantime, CCAs Sonoma Clean Power and Marin Clean Energy launched plans offering customers 100-percent-renewable-energy plans. Private utilities weren't necessarily happy about it.

    When a city votes to form a CCA, all customers in the service area are automatically switched to the public program. Pacific Gas & Electric and SDG&E lobbied state lawmakers to support a bill that would've required ratepayers to opt in to a CCA, requiring paperwork before people could join the program.

    Meanwhile, then-San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria took over as interim mayor, hired Capretz as director of environmental policy and instructed her to resurrect the climate plan. Within six months, the result was an aggressive document, which called for using CCA to phase out the use of non-renewable energy within 20 years.

    Part of the reason Capretz decided to leave government and form her own watchdog group was, she said, the continued pressure she got from "high-level city management" to nix enforceable mandates in the climate plan.

    "I knew that in order to make sure the plan was passed with the same goals, and to ensure that community choice had a fair shot, we needed to build a base of support," she said. "It takes an outside organization to do the outreach and education to explain what is community choice."

    Along with City Attorney Jan Goldsmith's office and Chief Operating Officer Scott Chadwick, former Planning Director Bill Fulton was the most vocal critic of making the plan enforcable, she said. "He probably posed the strongest opposition. So it really became Todd choosing my perspective or Bill's perspective."

    Fulton did not respond to CityBeat's attempts to contact him for this story. Gloria's office declined to comment.

    When Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer took office last spring, many in the environmental community feared that he and city staff would gut the climate plan under pressure from the businesses community. In the run-up to the release of his draft in September, San Diego Gas & Electric spent a significant amount of time at City Hall, according to lobbying disclosure reports.

    Francisco Urtasun, regional vice president of SDG&E, lobbied Faulconer and Republican City Councilmember Lorie Zapf on the climate plan and related issues more than a dozen times in eight months. Employees of SDG&E and its parent company, Sempra Energy, reported making campaign donations of $16,075 to Faulconer, $2,850 to Zapf and $8,000 to freshly minted Republican Councilmember Chris Cate.

    When asked about the Mayor's stance on implementing a CCA, spokesperson Craig Gustafson said, "The Mayor's decision on whether to move forward with a CCA will be dependent on [the feasibility study], as well as stakeholder input and public outreach."

    However, despite lobbying by SDG&E, the mayor and the City Council agreed to oppose the opt-in legislation in Sacramento that environmentalists feared.

    Then, shortly after, Faulconer released a climate plan that, to the surprise of many, maintained a strong renewable-energy mandate. In a subtle move, he also watered down the requirement for a CCA by allowing for other options that could meet the 100-percent-renewable-energy requirement.

    "The mayor's draft Climate Action Plan tweaked the language regarding CCAs to allow for other ways, specifically SDG&E-administered, of achieving 100-percent renewable energy," Gloria told CityBeat.

    Capretz believes that SDG&E lobbied the Mayor's office to remove CCA from the plan, something that would likely have violated the prohibition on lobbying and marketing against the program.

    "Frankly, SDG&E lobbied really hard to get him to take community choice out," she said. "What they got instead is they diluted the language."

    The Mayor's office denied this, saying the decision to explore alternatives to CCA was not a response to concerns made by SDG&E officials.

    "It's important that all options are considered in order to achieve 100-percent renewable," Gustafson said.

    For Capretz, the issue is both complex and simple. While building her coalition, she'll undoubtedly talk for hours about the nuances of energy policy and lay out why she supports CCA. But, ultimately, in her view, fighting climate change in the city means one thing: facing off with one of the region's most powerful special interests.

    "Monopolies are not efficient by nature," she said. "At this point, what we need is competition and choice. We need to allow for innovation and change."

    Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.


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