Supervisors Blast PG&E Over Costly Delays to Vital Projects

Disputes with PG&E have delayed projects from navigation centers to a police academy, costing millions of dollars and preventing services.

(Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

In what supervisors described as a long-overdue hearing on Wednesday, PG&E was blamed for costing the city millions of dollars on arbitrary electrical requirements and delaying several vital services.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen called for a hearing in April to get to the bottom of costly electrical delays to important city projects spanning navigation centers, affordable housing, community centers, recreational facilities and a police academy. Wednesday’s hearing before the Public Saftey and Neighborhood Services Committee focused on five projects but the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) listed a staggering 50 projects that either faced, is facing, or is at risk for a dispute with PG&E.

The numbers on a citywide total have not been crunched, but stringent requirements by PG&E have cost the Recreation and Park Department $2 million dollars in delays alone, Director of Policy and Public Affairs Sarah Madland told the committee.

“The more that I have dug into this issue the more appalled I am,” Ronen said. “We are not talking about luxury services here. It literally impacts the health and safety of our residents.”

The PUC has faced obstacles with PG&E going back to 1913 but the utility’s refusal to deliver power generated by Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco customers set up a fight that continues today. In the past year alone, that power source has saved the city $40 million in energy costs and significantly cut down carbon emissions while PUC projects prevented by PG&E have cost the city $6 million in revenue, according to the PUC.

In a PUC breakdown of five projects, a pattern emerged. PG&E often required the city to install equipment that processes a high energy load for facilities like Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital for projects as small as a single-stall restroom for SFMTA employees.

Barbara Hale, assistant general manager of PUC’s Power Enterprise, said the equipment not only takes up scarce space but disputes over the requirements lead to delays that increase construction costs, prevent residents from the project’s services, and costs the city revenue from unused energy.

Source: San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

Madland outlined the collective $2 million cost in delays on just three Recreation and Park Department projects but also emphasized community impact. In the case of the Balboa Pool, a 13-month construction delay also threw a wrench in sequentially-planned upgrades to its other pools to avoid impacted services with the simultaneous closure of two pools.

Ronen expressed targeted outraged at delays brought to the Central Waterfront Navigation Center amid a homelessness crisis.

Jess Brown, director of PG&E ‘s San Francisco division, emphasized that the utility has an obligation to treat customers equally and refrain from preferential treatment and acknowledged that some projects are subject to legal settlements.

“San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and PG&E have continued to disagree on the scope of those requirements,” Brown told the supervisors. “We share the city’s concerns about delays to city projects.”

Ronen pressed Brown on whether it was typical to require more of wholesale customers — typically cities like San Francisco — and other customers. Brown said it was consistent to have different interconnection requirements for retail customers and that he thinks “we agree to disagree.”

“It’s not only outrageous but criminal that you are treating San Francisco different,” Ronen said to the PG&E representatives. “We don’t want preferential treatment, we want you to follow the law.”

Peskin expressed reluctance to return to days of battling PG&E and that disagreements should be worked out maturely and expeditiously, not with settlements. But he also dangled the recent overwhelming passage of Proposition A — which paves the way for San Francisco to build its own grid — and city owning rights of way up and down the San Francisco Peninsula.

“This is the ominous threat, if you will. We could build that infrastructure,” Peskin told PG&E representatives. “It’s not where I want to go but I don’t want to be put in a position to start that conversation.”

PUC General Manager Harlan Kelly, for one, struck a reconciliatory tone and stated the commission just wishes to focus on a path forward. He added that he’s encouraged just by PG&E’s presence  — which also came with words of optimism for future agreements — at Wednesday hearing.

“I believe both PUC and PG&E agree that accountability is the key in ensuring that we move forward together,” Kelly said. “They are willing to sit down and roll up their sleeves and work with us.”

Ronen said the conversation would continue in the next couple months with another hearing and the introduction of a resolution at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

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