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Power Play: San Francisco's Plan for Clean, Local Energy Lacks One Detail: Everything. 

Wednesday, Apr 10 2013
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A platoon of union workers in loud, matching outfits is nearly as regular a City Hall sight as bridal parties in loud, matching outfits. And, on a recent Monday, members of the Laborers' Local No. 261 gathered outside Room 250; resplendent in traffic-cone-orange T-shirts, their muted Spanish conversations echoed through the halls of power. They were just part of an odd consortium of environmentalists and organizers. This disparate group was united in its concern that the city's ingeniously titled CleanPowerSF program — San Francisco's latest and most promising attempt to wean itself away from Pacific Gas & Electric — is in danger of shorting itself out.

This was not a message lost on Supervisor David Campos, one of CleanPowerSF's most ardent backers. "At times, I do wonder who's doing more to kill this program: PG&E or [CleanPowerSF] advocates," he grumbles. "The ironic thing about politics is sometimes there's a strange confluence of two extremes at some point meeting each other."

Possibly. Or, perhaps the ironic thing is that a program intended to fulfill the ur-San Francisco desires of environmentalists to establish clean, local energy, union workers to build it, and PG&E-hating politicos to unhorse the monopolistic utility has come under attack from those same parties for potentially doing none of this. A program envisioned as doing everything for everybody may do nothing for nobody.

Success for CleanPowerSF would differentiate it from previous efforts: Generations of San Franciscans have seen innovative energy alternatives trumped by an utter inability to make it happen. PG&E — anointed by Mayor Ed Lee "a great company that gets it" — has powered the city from the first Gilded Age to the current one. Serial failed efforts to alter the status quo at the ballot box were mounted by a rotating cast of progressive politicians backed by the element of the city's left flank for whom public power is both the raison d'être and a cure-all.

CleanPowerSF — which didn't require the costly and futile frontal assault of yet another electoral campaign — has been in the city's pipeline since the mid-1990s. And, like the America's Cup, it's a study in grand promises leading to diminished expectations. For years, it was touted as a pillar of the city's lofty goal of achieving 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020 while meeting or beating PG&E's rates — all while providing a cleaner product to a vastly smaller market and competing against a politically juiced company with a century of experience in the field.

That vision of the program has largely evaporated. In September, the Board of Supervisors, via a crucial mayoral veto-proof majority, greenlit a five-year contract with Shell — one of the world's largest energy companies. When the Shell deal is finalized, the city will begin purchasing 20 to 30 megawatts of "100 per cent renewable" power. That's only around 5 per cent of San Francisco's average residential usage, but it does move the city's Public Utilities Commission into the residential electric game.

Far from meeting or beating the status quo, CleanPowerSF customers should anticipate paying roughly double the PG&E rate for electricity generation, based on tentative PUC numbers. Monthly bills are expected to be augmented by between $10 to $83, depending on customers' usage; PUC officials now liken the "premium product" to organic groceries. Those objecting to organic prices must proactively opt out.

Coherent explanations of how to advance from this initial stage to the proposed "local build-out" — transforming San Francisco into the Ecotopia pined for by labor and environmentalists alike — have evaporated as well. Accordingly, as Campos indicated, some of the advocates who lobbied most fervently for CleanPowerSF leading up to the September vote are now the program's bitterest detractors — and complain that they served as a political smokescreen.


"There is no reason to do this if not for the build-out," says Al Weinrub, author of Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California. "The PUC has a concept of build-out that allows them to sign a contract with Shell before we know what the fuck we're doing. Who starts up a business, opens up the doors, then says 'Let's figure out our business plan?'"

Howard Ash makes a similar (though less profane) point. Confronted at a mid-March meeting by some of the very same union men, environmentalists, and organizers who'd later draw Campos' ire, the Rate Fairness Board member shook his head.

Nobody, Ash wryly observed, was speaking favorably anymore about CleanPowerSF — except for the city officials tasked to run it. Ash asked Public Utilities Commission staffers for a plan — a spreadsheet, anything — charting how the PUC would transition from merely contracting with Shell to achieving a local build-out which would supply the city with vast quantities of renewable power, energy independence, and jobs, jobs, jobs: the basis on which elected officials were sold on this program and the city continues to sell it to prospective customers.

He was told it doesn't exist.

After decades as a gleam in the eye of public-power advocates and years as the city's official energy policy, CleanPowerSF lacks a plan to achieve the build-out that justifies its existence — and without which the real promise of jobs and unambiguously clean energy won't come. Instead, warns Ash, the PUC's current approach is "a trap." High proposed initial rates could spur an exodus of customers from CleanPowerSF, but lowering them undercuts the revenue stream with which to fund a build-out. "I don't see how you get out of that box," Ash says. "I'm not sure the commission thought about how to get out of this trap."

But it's thinking about it now. On April 23, the PUC has been mandated to present its commission members with something that could be classified as a plan. PUC Commissioner Francesca Vietor all but demanded this: "I would like to go on record, once again, that we have not received a plan to conduct local build-out," she griped at a March meeting. Such a plan, she continued, "must be assembled in short order. Include everything. Financing. Jobs. Greenhouse gas emissions. Everything."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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