Green Facade: New SFPUC Building Masks an Eco-Unfriendly Truth

As you probably know from starry-eyed pieces in other papers, the city's 900-odd white-collar utility department workers begin moving into elaborately green new digs on Golden Gate Avenue this week. But any notion that the new eco-phallus near City Hall proves that San Francisco takes its energy or water footprint seriously is a fallacy.

The new San Francisco Public Utilities Commission building embraces pioneering environmental technology: turbines embedded into a façade curved to trap wind; oodles of solar panels; in-building water recycling; rainwater tanks; sunshine sensors linked to automated blinds.

That's the kind of coolness you get when you drop $200 million on a civic erection in anticipation of a century's worth of energy and water savings. But the granite-and-glass landmark conveniently masks the city's failure to address its wasteful water and power habits elsewhere.

The city owns about 400 buildings, mostly old energy hogs that burn through juice faster than city pensions burn through the budget. Those buildings need nearly $100 million worth of energy-efficiency work, such as new lighting and modern heating systems, the SFPUC has estimated.

The SFPUC has been helping city departments make inroads into the problem, contributing $40 million since 2002 to fund improvements at SFO and along the waterfront. But the agency's $5 million to $6 million annual energy-efficiency budget, which was used to pay for the building upgrades, is being slashed just as its own whiz-bang green building sprouts to life.

"It's hard to get the city departments to invest in energy efficiency when the electricity is so cheap," said Joshua Arce, executive director of local nonprofit Brightline Defense Project. He has been pushing the SFPUC during hearings to hike power rates for city departments. "It's even free in some cases."

Arce was a driving force behind the new local-hire law, part of his quixotic quest to get laborers from S.F.'s poor southeastern neighborhoods back to work. He says spending the needed $100 million on building improvements would not only help the environment, it would be a boon for the city's workforce.

The SFPUC recently decided to increase power rates for other departments by about 50 percent over four years to fund transmission network upgrades — a move that Arce described as a "great step forward" in encouraging those departments to overhaul inefficient buildings.

Still, the agency's annual energy-efficiency budget will be halved next year, and fall to $650,000 by 2016, leaving city departments to come up with the funds needed to patch up their buildings. That's unlikely, given current budget woes and the abundant cheap water and power from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

That means that while SFPUC officials will enjoy the thrill of flushing the same recycled water over and over, their colleagues in other departments will continue to piss away the cheap Hetch Hetchy hydropower and pristine snowmelt that many California cities yearn for.

 
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