Power struggles

Activists say Labor Council's opposition to CleanPowerSF could be a blessing in disguise

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rebecca@sfbg.com, steve@sfbg.com

Opposition from the San Francisco Labor Council scuttled the San Francisco Public Utility Commission's plans to approve CleanPowerSF on July 9. But activists supporting the renewable energy program actually welcomed that new roadblock, saying it could trigger a more robust rollout of renewable energy projects that they've been seeking all along.

"It gives us leverage," Eric Brooks, an organizer with Our City who has pushed the SFPUC to adopt a more aggressive CleanPowerSF, told us. "They're insisting on local union jobs and California union jobs, and we're glad they said that."

Brooks said labor's insistence on union job guarantees places the SFPUC under renewed pressure to implement a more aggressive buildout of local energy projects, from building retrofits to wind power generation facilities.

The SFPUC has already come under attack for the program because Shell Energy was the sole bidder to do the initial energy purchases. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents PG&E workers, has used the Shell contract as ammunition in a campaign against CleanPowerSF.

Shell's involvement also helped IBEW persuade the Labor Council to oppose the project, despite its longstanding support for community choice aggregation, the model for pooling customers into renewable power programs on which CleanPowerSF is based.

"The Labor Council is for community choice aggregation, we just don't like how the players have shaped up," Tim Paulson, the council's executive director, told us. "It really makes us hold our nose that Shell Oil is going to have a role ... one of the worst labor law violators in the world."

While the council's May 13 resolution criticizes Shell, it also expresses support for renewable energy generation in the city to "help San Francisco meet its climate action goals."

Brooks and other progressive activists share labor's disdain for Shell. They're trying to limit its involvement to merely purchasing the first 20 megawatts of power so CleanPowerSF can get underway with enough customers.

The SFPUC should then take over on power purchases, Brooks says, and start issuing revenue bonds against the CleanPowerSF customer base to build green power projects. New research by consultant Local Power shows CleanPowerSF could create 1,500 local jobs per year for 10 years.

Brooks also doesn't like Shell's involvement, but he said it was an acceptable means to the end, which was being able to roll out a CCA program that was competitive enough on price with PG&E that at least 80 percent of its targeted customer base would not choose to opt out, the level he believes they need to fund the buildout, which would bring prices down even more.

When we left a message for Local 1245 spokesperson Hunter Stern to ask whether the union would support CleanPowerSF if it guaranteed more union jobs, he referred questions to Paulson, who wouldn't go beyond his initial statements.

"If it wasn't for PG&E's pressure, Local 1245 probably wouldn't be doing this," Brooks said of the union's aggressive campaign against CleanPowerSF.

Representatives from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission told the Guardian that the agency intends to pursue a buildout of green power infrastructure, although CleanPowerSF director Kim Malcolm says only a few million dollars a year will initially be invested in renewable and efficiency projects.

"That line item is one of the reasons why the advocates are pretty much unanimously supporting this program," SFPUC spokesperson Charles Sheehan noted. "We listened to them. They wanted a lower rate, they wanted dedicated money for local buildout."

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