Advancing public power

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EDITORIAL A few months ago Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spent more than $10 million trying to keep the public Sacramento Municipal Utility District from annexing a part of Yolo County, which would have cost PG&E 77,000 customers. It was a stunning amount of campaign cash — and as is often the case, it worked: PG&E narrowly won the day, public power suffered a setback, and the people who wanted to get out from the private utility's high rates and save big money by buying electricity from a public power agency had their hope shot down.

We're used to this in San Francisco, where PG&E money and power have carried the day for more than 80 years and prevented the city from complying with the Raker Act, the federal law that requires public power. But the outcome of the Yolo County battle is a reminder of how high the stakes are for the beleaguered private utility — and how creative public power advocates are going to have to be in PG&E's hometown.

It's likely that there will be another ballot measure in the next year or two to authorize the city to sell bonds and take over PG&E's local distribution system. The evidence is clear: public power is cheaper, public power is more environmentally sound (remember — for all its green hype, PG&E still runs a nuclear power plant), and public power is San Francisco's legal mandate. Just about everyone in City Hall claims to be a public power supporter these days.

But in the meantime, the supervisors need to start looking at immediate alternatives that don't involve an expensive ballot battle. There may well be ways to bring public power to San Francisco without having to confront a $10 million (or $20 million or $30 million) PG&E political blitzkrieg.

The most obvious approach is to continue the small steps the city is currently taking and leverage them into a much bigger program. There is, of course, community choice aggregation, which should continue to move forward. Beyond that, San Francisco just won the right to provide electricity at the Hunters Point Shipyard Redevelopment Project; the city is trying to do the same for Treasure Island. Why not start with the shipyard and build a public power system outward, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood?

PG&E has no legal right to be the exclusive provider of retail power in the city. There's no legal reason why San Francisco can't start running wires out of the shipyard — underground, safely, with modern equipment — buy up a bunch of meters, and start offering the residents of Bayview–Hunters Point cheap electricity. The revenue from the first, say, 50-square-block project could fund the next one. The seed money could come as a loan from the General Fund.

The first thing the city's Public Utilities Commission needs to do is conduct a study of the cost of implementing public power on a small scale in one part of town — and the likely revenue it would bring in. A larger study should look at how the city could build its own distribution system (with state-of-the-art equipment) one step at a time over, say, five or 10 years.

At the same time, of course, while the city is running electric wires, it can run fiber-optic and (if necessary) coaxial lines, with the goal of creating a city-run broadband and cable TV service.

The ideal place to start discussing this is the Local Agency Formation Commission, which should hold hearings as soon as possible, prod the SFPUC to move — and fund the study if nobody else will.

In the meantime, the City Attorney's Office should look into another (admittedly slightly unconventional) idea: could the Redevelopment Agency, which already has the authority to issue bonds, simply seize all of PG&E's wires, poles, and meters for a public power system?

We don't trust the Redevelopment Agency, and it's risky to even raise this idea.