Anniversary Issue: People's power - Page 3

A sustainable energy system is well within San Francisco's reach
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Renewable energy doesn't use fuel, and fuel is what we're really paying for from PG&E — which is also a natural gas company.

The city owns no fossil fuel-reliant infrastructure, but PG&E is deeply invested in natural gas, gets about 40 percent of its energy from it, and has four new gas plants under construction. "As a society, we have to decide whether we want to get on the up elevator or the down elevator," said Robert Freehling, research director for Local Power. "Over time, fuel costs more and more. We make all these investments in hardware and tend to forget that it's a promise to spend more money later. With solar panels and wind turbines there are no risks that the cost of wind or sunlight is going to go up in five years."

Natural gas, as well as every other fossil fuel, definitely will rise in price. (PG&E recently raised rates 6 percent to reflect that.) If a carbon tax or a cap and trade law is implemented, it'll go up even more.

"Ultimately what will happen is that fossil fuels will get more expensive and renewable energy will become more affordable," Freehling said.

Would the city do a better job of promoting energy efficiency than PG&E? Look at the record.

Between 2003 and 2005, a Peak Energy Program was undertaken as a partnership between PG&E and the SF Department of the Environment (SFE) with $16.3 million in state money. In an August 2006 report, the Office of the Legislative Analyst found that with only an eighth of the funding, SFE was responsible for more than one-fifth of the energy savings. In other words, the city used the money more efficiently than PG&E.

The major criticism of most renewable energy technologies is that they're intermittent, meaning they can't provide power all day and all night. The sun goes down; the wind fades. Nuclear, coal, and natural gas are always on because we need power. And though many energy experts have asserted that the grid still needs at least some base load power, this assumes we'll never apply technology to the system in any meaningful way.

But those critics are talking about a stupid grid — and the days when energy was managed that way are over. Federal and state regulators began meeting as a smart grid task force this year.

In a smart-grid world with 100 percent renewables, intermittent resources are blended to meet the current load, and the load is tweaked in minor, unnoticeable ways to meet what the resources can provide.

Suppose, for example, that it's mid-afternoon on a hot day and a cloud bank passes over San Francisco, causing the output from all the city's rooftop solar panels to decrease slightly. The smart grid would instantly send a signal to 10,000 air conditioners and shut them off for 15 minutes until the cloud passes. Later that night, perhaps the output from the city's wind farm dips from 150 MW to 100 MW — the grid would automatically turn down everyone's refrigerator by one degree.

"It's called capacity-balancing," Fenn said. "It's part of how you go greener and stay cheaper."

But PG&E will never pursue real green energy because in the long run, there's no profit in it. "That's like trying to persuade AT&T, back in 1975, to pursue developing the Internet," Fenn said. "We're not looking for a 20 percent improvement. We want a complete transformation." *