Public power, underground

Daly seeks plan to create city utility system, block by block

Public power advocates are looking for new ways to lay the groundwork for city-owned electricity — by just opening up the ground.

The plan could be a significant step forward for the public power movement and may open a new front in the long campaign to replace Pacific Gas and Electric Co. with a city-run agency.

Sup. Chris Daly has asked the city attorney to draft legislation that would require anyone who digs up a city street, for any reason, to install city-owned power and fiber-optic cables in the hole. That would mean, for example, that when PG&E replaces natural gas lines, as it's doing all over the city right now, the company would also have to install (or allow the city to install) the infrastructure for a municipal power and communications system.

And since the city will be paying to tear up every single street to replace water and sewer pipes over the next two decades, the plan would eventually create a complete network that could be used to deliver public electricity — and Internet and cable TV — to residents and businesses.

"In 15 to 20 years' time, we would have an electric grid that's underground and owned by the city," Daly told the Guardian.

The advantage of the plan is that it may be far cheaper (and more practical) to build an underground city network than to condemn and buy out PG&E's existing, aging system.

The idea isn't new: Back in 2004, Sup. Tom Ammiano proposed a similar plan and held hearings on it. Ammiano talked about burying electrical cable as well as fiber-optic lines, which he said would be a far better solution to the digital divide than Mayor Gavin Newsom's wi-fi plan.

Daly's idea is to use a special tax program to purchase the equipment at bulk prices and have it on hand for whenever the jackhammers come out.

"The beauty of this proposal is you're getting the efficiency of the streets being dug up," Daly said, which would reduce costs for the overall plan.

And of course, the final system would be all underground — much more aesthetically pleasing and safer during earthquakes than PG&E's aboveground grid.

The cable itself isn't cheap, but Daly suggests the city could take advantage of the Mello-Roos Community Facilities Act of 1982, passed by voters in response to the belt-tightening implications of Proposition 13. With Mello-Roos, local officials designate an area — from as small as a house lot to as large as an entire city — as a community facilities district and levy a tax to pay for improvements to the infrastructure in that area. Similar to a "community benefit district," it must be approved by the property owners, and the funds typically go toward better streets, services, and facilities — including electricity.

It costs the city as much as $380 a foot to dig trenches, then backfill them after installing conduit. But if the street is already torn up, the price of laying electric cable is only about $100 a foot, figures we've obtained show. The cost for wiring all 900-odd miles of San Francisco streets would run close to $500 million — less than half of what PG&E insists the city would have to pay to buy out its old lines. And individual neighborhoods could be wired for relatively modest amounts of money.

Daly said CFDs could be established by neighborhood or district and coupled with the installation of renewable energy sources, which the city is planning to do through community choice aggregation.