Nickels and dimes

The White House throws pocket change at San Francisco for solar power
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We get a lot of press releases announcing that San Francisco has made it to the top of another "greenest" list. Popular Science named SF the second-greenest city in the nation last February. Sustainlane.com called this place the second-greenest city in 2006. Reader's Digest added honors for the fifth-cleanest city in 2005, the same year San Francisco hosted the UN's World Environment Day.

The city's ban on plastic grocery bags is spreading, and last year Mayor Gavin Newsom won a Green Cross Award from Global Green USA alongside Irmelin DiCaprio, the mother of film star Leonardo DiCaprio.

But none of that adds up to what the city really needs: cash.

Then the US Department of Energy in late March designated three more California cities — Sacramento, San Jose, and Santa Rosa — as new "Solar American Cities" — and this award came with money attached. And the DOE has dough: the agency requested $25 billion from Congress this year.

The solar grant was worth $2.4 million. The money was divided among 12 cities nationwide, leaving each municipality with just $200,000. And that was supposed to cover a two-year period.

Berkeley, San Francisco, and San Diego made the "Solar American Cities" list in 2007. San Francisco's Department of the Environment received the money, and a conciliatory Johanna Partin, the renewable energy program manager there, said it was the only grant from Bush's Solar America Initiative her office had actually applied for.

San Francisco at least will able to use the money to help the owners of large buildings assess what it would take to install solar technology. We've already digitally mapped the city's grandest roofs.

Margie Bates, a project manager for the DOE's Solar Energy Technologies Program in Golden, Colo., told us that the grant includes $200,000 in additional credit for hiring local experts to advise building owners on the technology or retain the expertise of DOE officials themselves.

"The funding is allowing us to do some pieces of our solar program that we didn't otherwise have funding for. So in that sense it's good," she said. "But, you know, $200,000 over two years is not a lot of money."

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