Ballot Measure Forming to Push Out SDG&E, Create Public Utility

One of San Diego’s most prolific public power advocates is behind Power San Diego, an effort to put municipalization before voters in November.

Proponents of taking power lines from San Diego Gas and Electric struck out at the San Diego City Council to put the matter before voters in November. 

So now the group, called Power San Diego, is going the route of collecting tens of thousands of signatures – 80,020 to be exact. Anyone can propose a new law, or change one, but not without getting the OK from 10 percent of the voters.  

“We think our fellow citizens might be motivated,” Powers said. “Rates have doubled since 2016 and the current projection so far that I’ve seen is that they’ll continue to rise as far as we can see.”  

The plan, according to Bill Powers, who is leading that effort, is to push the city of San Diego to take over the poles, wires and substations in local right of ways and end its century-long relationship with SDG&E. Powers said San Diego is already suffering from the highest electric rates in the country.  

SDG&E warned against it. Numerous studies have estimated that buying SDG&E’s infrastructure within city limits would cost billions, values the company disputed time and again.  

“Pushing an uninformed ballot measure without understanding the serious financial implications to the city and taxpayers is a dangerous blank check that risks billions of tax dollars along with the safety and reliability of the power grid,” wrote Anthony Wagner, a spokesman for SDG&E in an email. “We are confident SDG&E remains the best option for San Diego customers, given our outstanding safety record, climate innovation and unmatched reliability.” 

However, a recent public power feasibility study conducted by the city suggested San Diego could save money by taking over its grid.  

Volunteer-based signature gathering is a heavy lift.  

Whole companies form around the sole purpose of gathering signatures behind ballot measures, the backbone of California’s direct-to-voter brand of democracy. People hired to grab signatures outside grocery stores and pharmacies can earn up to $15 per signature – costing groups backing measures millions of dollars.  

Powers said his group plans to gather the necessary John Hancocks through volunteers. Power San Diego hired a few full-time staff but doesn’t have a professional fundraiser or someone “with deep pockets” to run the show, Powers said.  

“It’s people putting some of their retirement funds into something they consider just as important,” he said. 

The group plans to drop its final ballot language in a few weeks. A letter submitted to the City Council Rules Committee in July elucidates what Powers et al are hoping for: A not-for-profit public electric utility that operates as a city department with an independently appointed board, much like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.  

Powers wasn’t always an advocate for the city absorbing the duties of an electric utility. He told me back in 2020 – when San Diego was in the thick of deciding whether to re-ink a contract with SDG&E – the public utility should ideally operate as an independent body outside the politics of City Hall. But that would require a change to the city’s constitution, called the city charter, and require twice the signatures.  

Point is – Powers said, “Right now we have no recourse to make changes to our existing private utility. With this, we’d have local control.” 

In his other role as a board member of Protect Our Communities Foundation, which fought SDG&E’s Sunrise PowerLink transmission line years ago, recently lost a battle to undo San Diego’s contract with the utility, the Union-Tribune reported.