Two clean energy tracks for SF

Small tweaks could make the city's road to sustainable power a lot less bumpy

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OPINION CleanPowerSF, San Francisco's green electricity alternative to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., is set to launch this year. The program is following two parallel paths — one to build renewable energy in San Francisco and create thousands of local jobs, the other to purchase clean power from remote sources from Shell Energy.

While both tracks bring advantages, this bifurcated approach could end up serving only 30 percent of city residents. Fortunately, the city can easily improve the launch of CleanPowerSF by merging the two tracks.

Enacted by the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 and in 2007, CleanPowerSF is not a public-power program like Santa Clara's Silicon Valley Power or Alameda Municipal Power. CleanPowerSF is a public-private partnership, much like the successful Marin Clean Energy, which can buy power in bulk from outside companies — and also generate its own renewable energy. PG&E still owns the transmission grid and will deliver electricity to customers, who then have the option of choosing between CleanPowerSF and PG&E.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has embarked on a detailed analysis of PG&E electricity data to find out how much electricity is used in different parts of the city at different times of the day and how much it costs. That will pinpoint exactly where in San Francisco renewable energy should be built for the highest efficiency and lowest costs to ratepayers.

While this analysis is being conducted, the SFPUC plans to initiate the second track, offering ratepayers 100% renewable electricity purchased from Shell Energy North America. That will get CleanPowerSF up and running quickly — but would cost ratepayers between $6.70 and $54.50 more a month more than PG&E. As a result, the SFPUC estimates that as many as 70% of ratepayers could leave CleanPowerSF and go back to PG&E.

The SF PUC plans to offer CleanPowerSF to two-thirds of San Francisco customers — 230,000 residences — with as many as 155,000 opting out. Once these people opt out, they won't be customers of the cheaper, locally produced, job-creating, green energy that will come later.

By comparison, only 20 percent of Marin Clean Energy customers opted out at initial rollout. That's because Marin Clean Energy offers a 27 percent renewable energy option in addition to a higher-cost 100 percent green option. The "light-green" option is cheaper because it mixes in lower-cost, non-renewable electricity.

The PUC could keep more San Franciscans in CleanPowerSF by integrating the local generation and data analysis and purchasing tracks. First, it could include a cheaper light-green option like Marin's. To determine what mix of renewable and non-renewable electricity would be cost-competitive with PG&E, the PUC would use the results from the first track, the analysis of electricity usage data, expected this spring. The Board of Supervisors could make these changes when it takes up the Shell contract this month or next.

In the past few months, CleanPowerSF has made much progress thanks to San Francisco Supervisor David Campos and Ed Harrington, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The addition of a cost-competitive light-green option would enable CleanPowerSF to better compete with PG&E and keep more San Franciscans in the program — for the long term. That would significantly increase the number of new local jobs created and have a greater effect in fighting global climate change. It worked in Marin, and it can work in San Francisco as well..

John Rizzo is former chair of the Sierra Club Bay Area Chapter and current president of the San Francisco Community College Board