Turning the tides

Have Newsom and PG&E teamed up to steal tidal power from the public?


On June 19 the Board of Supervisors cast its final ayes in favor of San Francisco's new plan for public power, Community Choice Aggregation, which allows the city to own or purchase as much as 51 percent of the electricity for its residents and businesses from renewable sources. The plan's goal is to meet or beat the rates of the city's current provider, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which draws 13 percent of its power from renewable sources. CCA has become the popular choice for public power fans, who have long pushed the city to get a divorce from PG&E's monopoly.

But across town the same day, it looked as if Mayor Gavin Newsom was renewing nuptial vows with the $12 billion utility. In front of the charming backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, Newsom announced a partnership between the city and PG&E to look into tidal power. He promised "the most comprehensive study yet undertaken to assess the possibilities for harnessing the tides in San Francisco Bay."

PG&E committed as much as $1.5 million, which will bolster $146,000 from the city and a $200,000 grant from the Sidney E. Frank Foundation.

The news conference had public-power advocates wondering about Newsom's real commitment to renewable, locally owned power. "I've asked all the members of the Board of Supervisors," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told the Guardian. "That press conference — nobody knew it was taking place." He said a mayoral aide later apologized that his office hadn't been informed, but he added, "I don't think it was a mistake that it occurred on the same day as the vote for CCA."

The Mayor's Office said the scheduling was purely coincidental and had been on the books for at least three weeks, but it did not issue a news release about the news conference, and no media advisory was sent to us.

Parties involved in the deal say it will bring more money to researching a shaky, untested technology — even if it means that the power any project generates could be controlled by PG&E. "We're always going to have that issue of ownership later, and I'd rather get the research data into the public domain," said Jared Blumenfeld, director of the city's Department of the Environment (SFE).

Blumenfeld insisted that the deal would give the public direct oversight of all research, including work done by the private utility. The memorandum of understanding between San Francisco, PG&E, and Golden Gate Energy, which holds the permit license for tidal energy in the bay, makes it clear that all information will be shared by all parties and open to public scrutiny.

Newsom made a similar announcement in September 2006, when he called for the creation of a Tidal Power Advisory Group and allocated $150,000 for a feasibility study through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the SFE. But that program hasn't gone far — and the little that has happened is secret.

A review of the agendas and minutes of SFPUC and SFE commission meetings shows only scant and passing mention of tidal power. The Tidal Power Advisory Group eventually came to fruition as one of five subcommittees of the Clean Tech Advisory Council, a 16-member board of local "green" business executives, entrepreneurs, and environmental experts that was formed at the call of the mayor in November 2005. Chaired by William K. Reilly, an Environmental Protection Agency administrator under George H.W. Bush, the council neither announces meetings or agendas nor makes public its minutes.

A special subcommittee devoted to tidal and wave energy has worked closely with the SFPUC to advance a feasibility study. The contract for that study went without bid to URS Corp. and will continue in conjunction with the new PG&E partnership.

URS, an international engineering, design, and construction firm based in San Francisco and formerly run by Sen.