Anniversary Issue: People's power - Page 2

A sustainable energy system is well within San Francisco's reach

Over time, as the upfront cost of the system is paid off, your rates decrease and your power bill drops so low it is barely a factor in your life. And the SFPUC helped you find ways to make your apartment more energy efficient, so that some of your wasted electricity could be freed for other people to use. That way, the city wouldn't have to spend more public money building a new power plant. And the panels you own provide more electricity than you actually need — so you're making a little money selling the excess to other residents.

This is the vision of what would happen under Proposition H and community choice aggregation (CCA), the city's proposed plan for locally controlled power. "It unbundles the location of the resource from the ownership so renters can participate," said Paul Fenn, CEO of Local Power and lead author of the city's CCA plan. That's key for a city like San Francisco, where two-thirds of the population rents.

Right now, even though the city has some robust incentives for purchasing solar panels, buyers still need deep pockets to cover the upfront cost.

But the city can use its low-interest bonding authority to purchase panels in bulk and identify well-oriented, available roof space to install them. The roof owner could own the panels, rent the space, just buy the power, or opt out entirely. "It's not just public power, it's community power," Fenn said. "It's not just owned by the government — it's owned by the people."

SMUD — a model public power agency — offers its customers something similar, "solar shares" in an array of panels. Shares start at $10.75 for a half-kilowatt and, depending on how much energy you use, you would save between $4 and $50 per month.

California's CCA law — Assembly Bill 117, authored by state Sen. Carole Migden and passed in 2002 — allows counties to become their own energy providers and buy or build their own power, then pipe it to residents using the existing transmission infrastructure owned by the utility company. As a CCA, the city could pursue green energy more aggressively than PG&E does, could set its own rates, and make rules about how people are compensated for their power.

For example, current metering laws allow you to be credited the extra energy your solar panels produce during times they aren't producing. But if at the end of the year your system generates more power than you use, PG&E keeps the surplus — for free. The CCA could pay you a fair rate for it instead.

San Francisco's current CCA plan lays out the financing and acquisition for 51 percent renewable energy by 2017.

That's about 360 MW of energy — and the upfront costs for solar panels on homes, businesses, and city buildings, as well as a 150 MW wind farm and scores of other energy-saving measures, are financed by a $1.2 billion revenue bond. Assuming a good interest rate of about 5.5 percent and a 20-year payback, that amounts to $99 million a year for the city.

Rates would cover this and any excess revenue could lower bills or fund future renewable energy projects. And, if voters pass Prop H in November, the city will be required to provide 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Prop. H builds on the existing CCA plan by requiring the city to look at owning its own transmission and distribution system — a program that would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, enough to fund extensive conservation and renewable programs. How can clean, reliable, low-cost energy be right on the horizon? Simple: Public ownership and decentralized local generation.

The benefits of publicly owned, locally based energy are vast. Local distribution cuts the cost of building large transmission lines and saves a lot of energy that's lost as heat from high voltage electricity traveling long distances.