Anniversary Issue: People's power

A sustainable energy system is well within San Francisco's reach
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> amanda@sfbg.com

Living in a city like San Francisco, it's pretty easy to advance your personal environmental prerogative. You can walk, ride your bike, or take public transportation almost anywhere you want to go. You can spurn the dominant consumer consciousness and buy used clothes and household goods at thrift stores. You can take short showers and drink clean Hetch Hetchy tap water instead of the bottled stuff. You can pick organic cornflakes over Kellogg's version. You can even go to a worker-owned co-op that sells mostly organic goods and buy produce from Bay Area growers at the farmers markets.

But when it comes to energy, you're stuck.

You're stuck with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. You're stuck buying electricity that's 89 percent environmentally unsound, from a company that can't even meet the modest state requirement of 20 percent renewable by 2010.

The $12 billion utility company offers absolutely no way for consumers to purchase 100 percent green energy, although some of its counterparts, including publicly owned Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Silicon Valley Power, make that option available.

Sure, you can use less electricity by screwing compact fluorescent light bulbs into your lamps, unplugging your cell phone charger when you leave the house, and hanging your clothes on the line to dry. But you can't look at the diesel and gas-fired Potrero Hill power plant and say, "Nope, I'm getting my power elsewhere."

What if you could? What if you could hike to the top of Bernal Hill or Mount Sutro and look out across the skyline of San Francisco and no longer see any power plant stacks belching fumes? What if you saw solar panels shimmering on nearly every roof, and wind turbines spinning furiously in the late afternoon breeze, and you knew that your apartment didn't depend on a distant fossil fuel plant polluting Antioch, or an aging nuclear plant menacing the people of San Luis Obispo?

That's what a long-term financially and environmentally sustainable energy system for San Francisco would look like. The picture would include thousands of small-scale, locally-owned solar panels and wind turbines and geothermal home heating pumps and plug-in hybrid cars, distributed throughout the city, feeding into a grid that uses wireless technology to monitor and automatically adjust loads in tiny ways you don't even notice.

It would also involve a new economic model that doesn't require you to own a home to own solar power, and a system that uses off-the-shelf and emerging technologies to promote efficiency. The city would use its low interest bonding ability to invest in larger tidal power and wind farm infrastructure, and pay for things like burying power lines and training the next generation of city workers to run the new, smarter energy grid and maintain and install more renewable energy.

It isn't pie in the sky, either — most of the technologies exist, the funding structures are there, and the goals are real: Al Gore has said the country could have 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, and he's right.

San Francisco is actually on the path to making it happen — with a November ballot measure, Proposition H, and a community choice aggregation system — if City Hall and the voters can get beyond PG&E's lobbying and lies.

Imagine you're a longtime tenant in a rent-controlled apartment with a landlord who hasn't bothered to put solar panels on the roof because he or she doesn't pay the electric bill (you do). But it doesn't matter, because you actually own shares in a vast network of photovoltaic panels distributed all over the city, maintained and managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

You, along with the thousands of other San Franciscans who are part of this power cooperative, pay a flat rate for enough shares to meet your energy needs.