Public power: step one


EDITORIAL Finally, after years of talk and a fair amount of delay, San Francisco is prepared to move forward and take a significant step toward public power. The supervisors are on board, the mayor's on board — even the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which has never been much of an advocate for public power, seems to be on board.
So the goal now ought to be approving the Community Choice Aggregation program, putting it into action, and using it as a springboard to a real public power system.
Community Choice Aggregation creates the equivalent of an energy co-op. The city can buy power in bulk, directly from generators, and resell it to residents and businesses at lower rates than the private monopoly Pacific Gas and Electric charges. It will, of course, save the ratepayers some cash — and with PG&E's soaring rates sucking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the local economy and hammering small businesses, that's a great thing.
But the overall point of this ought to be getting the city into the business of selling retail electricity — and getting the public used to the idea that running an electric utility is something local government tends to do well. Public power cities all over California have lower rates and more reliable service than cities that deal with PG&E. PG&E's public relations crew and expensive political consultants try to obscure that fact every time a full-scale public power measure goes on the ballot.
The problem is that CCA doesn't entirely get San Francisco out of PG&E's control. The giant utility still owns the lines, polls, and meters, so the city will have to pay to deliver its power through that system. If the system breaks down, we'll have to rely on PG&E to fix it. And if PG&E continues to handle the billing functions, most residents may never realize that there's been a dramatic change in the local grid.
As a first step, the supervisors need to demand that the city handle the billing functions, so that ratepayers see a bill coming from the city of San Francisco, not PG&E. That will reinforce the fact that this is public power and that the city, not the private monopoly, is responsible for the rate decrease.
Then public power advocates need to set a target date for another electoral campaign to kick PG&E out of town altogether. SFBG