Dirty war over clean power

City program attacked by PG&E allies — and enviros

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Large-scale solar arrays like this one are expensive.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MIRISSA NEFF

tredmond@sfbg.com

It was supposed to be part of Ed Harrington's legacy, and the chief of the city's Public Utilities Commission delayed his retirement to make sure it happened.

But six months after the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to move forward with CleanPowerSF, the plan is under attack from all sides. Pacific Gas & Electric Company's house union is spending big chunks of money to shoot it down. The press is loaded with accounts of how expensive it's going to be for customers. Advocates on the left are blasting it as too limited.

Critics say Harrington's replacement, Harlan Kelly, is far less interested in making a program work that clearly lacks the support of a PG&E-friendly mayor.

That's left Sup. David Campos, City Hall's chief proponent for CleanPowerSF, trying to move forward with a program that, for all its flaws, is the city's best chance to put a crack in PG&E's monopoly.

CleanPowerSF will offer San Franciscans a greener alternative to PG&E power, most of which comes from nonrenewable sources. The city will buy renewable power in bulk, through Shell Energy, and distribute it to customers along PG&E's lines.

A similar system is working well in Marin County, and communities all over the state are looking to see if a city the size of San Francisco — where PG&E has kept out any hint of competition for a century — can pull it off.

Clean power is more expensive right now, and that's one sticking point: City officials recognize that not all San Franciscans will be willing to pay a premium (of perhaps $10 to $20 a month) for the option. An SFPUC survey released March 25 showed that about 45 percent of the city's customers would pay extra for clean power and stick with the new program. Earlier studies suggested that 90,000 customers will remain with CleanPowerSF — enough to make the system financially viable.

(Interestingly, the areas most likely to pay extra to avoid fossil fuels are not the wealthiest parts of town. Most of the customers would be on the Eastside, in communities like the Mission, Potrero Hill, the Haight, and Noe Valley.)

The bigger problem with the current debate is that advocates and city officials can't agree how much money the city ought to spend, on what schedule, to build its own renewable generation system, which would eventually replace much of the power purchased by Shell.

"In the past we would have figures and claims from all sides, and Ed Harrington would look at the numbers and figure it all out, and everybody trusted him," Campos said. "But we don't have Ed any more, and Kelly doesn't seem to be as strongly behind this."

Building a green-power infrastructure was always a critical part of the CleanPowerSF plan. And once the city has a system up and running, it can use the revenue stream to float bonds to pay for building solar, wind, and cogeneration facilities.

Over time, the locally generated power would be far cheaper than what anyone can offer today, meaning rates would come down.

"We agreed to move the sales agreement forward to get the system started, then keep working on the build-out," Campos explained.

But a campaign by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents PG&E employees and is historically allied with the company's political goals, is trying to scare customers away with claims of high rates. And in fact, the first rate proposals were above what Campos and others were hoping for.

So the Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees CleanPowerSF for the supervisors, and the SFPUC, have send staff back to try to find ways to cut rates.

Meanwhile, Kelly wants to de-couple the public build-out from the Shell agreement, in essence launching the program with the most expensive elements in place — and potentially undermining the future of a publicly owned energy infrastructure.

Comments

There is little doubt about that.

Maybe it wouldn't matter except that we will have to "contract out" rather than "contract in" to it.

With PG&E now 60% sustainable energy, it seems this gimmick that Shell Oil sold to the city might be moot and DOA.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 9:45 am

system you admit will be more expensive?

Just so you can say there is competition to PG&E?

I'd like to see the city start to do a good job with the businesses it already finds itself in, like Muni, before trusting the city with a risky speculation like this which will dilute and distract city management from it's core services.

Fix the streets right, and then and only then talk to me about diversifying the enterprise.

Posted by anon on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 9:51 am

@anon: The $1 billion local installation project will save hundreds of millions of dollars, because once the solar, wind, and efficiency are built and paid off, they will bring in huge revenues and savings from facilities which produce essentially free energy, and discounts, because they dramatically decrease the necessity to pay for fuel to run traditional generators.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

I do not want my tax dollars going to speculative ventures.

I want my city to stick to it's core services.

The voters have always rejected city-run power.

And in fact I want to see Hetch-Hetchy torn downj - it's an environmental abortion.

Posted by anon on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

it is not the place of local government to risk tax payer money on an investment that may or may not pay off. Plus wind power currently is not cost effective. Fuel for traditional generators is cheap, you need to look at taxing fuel for its real cost to the enviroment to make alternatives cost effective.

Posted by Chris Pratt on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

But I do not think that more taxes on anything is the solution either.

Did any jurisdiction ever tax itself into prosperity?

Well, actually, a few tax havens like Andorra did but they did that by only taxing foreigners!

Posted by Guest on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

This is a deal with Shell Oil, and while the power they provide may be renewable, it is FAR from clean or green. Shell has been clear about the fact that they are not planning to invest in wind or solar, and will rely on biomass. You can burn and regrow forests, which makes them renewable, but biomass releases four times as much CO2 as natural gas. Plain and simple: it's not cleaner. Before we ask people to pay significantly more, let's come up with a program that makes sense.

Posted by Timer on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

If we wait to make it perfect, we'll be waiting forever, which is what PG&E wants. I just want a choice to not pump more money into the coffers of PG&E. Shell's pretty awful too, but they haven't rigged elections here, or blown up any neighborhoods, so until we come up with something better, I'll take it.

Posted by Greg on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

the coty has to run it. The voters have repeatedly told us that they want PG&E running power, and not the same people that (don't) fix the street and run Muni.

So we could do what they have done in various European nations and let several utilities bid for domestic supply and compete with each other. You can choose the greenest, if you want, or the cheapest.

Personally, with PG&E now at 60% sustainable, I'm happy to stay with them. The fact that they will be much cheaper than this uneasy marriage of city bureaucrats and big oil just makes the case even stronger.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 9:51 am

In reference to Marin's CCA (Marin Clean Energy), Tim Redmond writes that "a similar system is working well in Marin County." We'll, yes. It is "working well" -- at least if it doesn't bother residents that Marin is building NO local renewables. And it should be noted that MCE's grotesquely over-hyped PPA with San Rafael Airport for slightly less than one megawatt of solar power would likely never have happened without relentless pressure from a small handful of activists and the ongoing critical analysis of ONE local newspaper, SolarTimes (www.solartimes.org). MCE is "working well if no one minds that behind closed doors and in direct breach of its solemn promises, Marin Energy Authority (Marin Clean Energy's Joint Powers Authority or "purchasing arm") quietly EXTENDED its contract with one of the world's worst polluters and human rights abusers. Right. Shell Oil. That little item never made its way into the front pages of Marin's "Independent Journal" or the Pacific Sun, the county's two primary newspapers. Both of these local papers. btw, frequently feature MCE's press releases as if they were an "objective" news source and played the San Rafael Airport PPA "story" on their front pages, as if one megawatt of purchased solar power was somehow "groundbreaking" for a CCA that initially tried to market itself as "green and local." Both newspapers receive hefty ad revenue from MCE, which likely explains why neither seem able to put down their pom-poms long enough to do their job, and protect the public interest. If the SFBG considers Marin Clean Energy. to be a CCA that is "working well," then maybe it is not the progressive little newspaper it once was. I hope that is not the case

Posted by Sandy LeonVest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 11:28 am