Bringing CCA to life

Will Newsom let PG&E sabotage solar energy plan?
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EDITORIAL Community Choice Aggregation, a new system of developing and selling electric power, has the potential to put San Francisco on the cutting edge of renewable energy nationwide. It could offer lower rates to consumers. It could be an important first step on the road to a full public power system.

When the notion first came up a few years ago, everyone — from Mayor Gavin Newsom to the supervisors to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — claimed to be supportive. Now Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Tom Ammiano have put forward a plan that would ensure that half the city's electricity come from solar, wind, and increased efficiency (along with the power we currently get from the dam at Hetch Hetchy). The plan would put San Francisco in the business of developing, promoting, and using solar energy on a huge scale. And suddenly, PG&E is spending millions on ad campaigns and has launched a quiet letter-writing effort to sabotage CCA — and the mayor is nowhere to be found.

It's no coincidence that the giant private utility's ads began appearing all over the city, including on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, in the same month that Ammiano and Mirkarimi were preparing to introduce their CCA bill. The company is trying to lay the groundwork to counter the city's arguments that public power, or CCA, is an environmentally sound alternative to PG&E. As Amanda Witherell reported ("Green Isn't PG&E," 4/18/07), the whole image of PG&E as a green company is a lie: its current power profile is 44 percent fossil fuels and 24 percent nuclear — which means two-thirds of the electricity the company sells is creating either greenhouse gases or nuclear waste.

The CCA plan, on the other hand, calls for 360 megawatts of fully renewable energy in San Francisco. The way the system would work, the city would use money that voters have already approved to develop solar generators and would contract with electricity providers that offer renewable energy. The city would buy the power in bulk, at comparatively low rates, then resell it to residents and businesses. And since the city won't be making a profit, the cost to consumers will be less than what they currently pay PG&E.

It sounds simple, but the actual implementation is going to be a bit tricky — and will require constant monitoring. That's why Ammiano and Mirkarimi want to create a new panel, made of several supervisors and representatives from the Mayor's Office and the SFPUC, to manage the transition. It makes perfect sense: the supervisors need to play a role in the new agency and ought to sign off on any contract. If they don't, the whole thing could be underfunded, delayed, and packed off to a bureaucratic back room.

But Newsom doesn't want to give up control, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera hasn't signed off on the deal. Herrera no doubt has legal arguments against creating a joint control agency, but we can't believe there's no legal way to pull this off. Herrera needs to help the board come up with a creative solution.

Meanwhile, Newsom needs to stop ducking this issue. He seems to have plenty of time to attend PG&E's faux-green media events — but even after CCA supporters rescheduled a press conference twice at the request of Newsom's office and set it for a time the mayor was available, he didn't show up.

CCA is a key part of the city's energy future. The supervisors should pass the plan, including an oversight panel, and the mayor should not only sign it but actively push for rapid implementation. If not, his kowtowing to PG&E should be a central issue for a challenger in the fall campaign. *

PS State law bars PG&E from actively campaigning against aggregation, yet there are signs that the utility is doing just that. Herrera and District Attorney Kamala Harris should immediately open an investigation.