Beating the reaper

S.F.'s clean energy program clears a key milestone in its race against Prop. 16

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rebeccab@sfbg.com

The wholesome-looking woman in the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.-funded Yes on Proposition 16 commercial seems trustworthy. "Voters should have the final say," she intones over a background of soothing music, "because we're paying the bills."

TV-friendly slogans aside, many have deemed PG&E's $45 million (a new figure well over the $35 million initially committed by the company — paid for by ratepayers who had no say) Prop. 16 campaign to be a subversion of the democratic process and corporate deception at its worst. And it's aimed in part at stopping San Francisco — one of PG&E's most lucrative territories and the home of its central office — from implementing a modest public power program called community choice aggregation (CCA).

But San Francisco may be slipping under the deadline. With a last-minute push by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi and other public-power supporters, it appears that the city will have the legal underpinning of a CCA program in place before the June 8 election.

It's still complicated and a bit tricky, but under questioning by Mirkarimi April 21, SF Public Utilities Commission general manager Ed Harrington said that the city is going to meet all the necessary deadlines.

Prop. 16 seeks to require a two-thirds majority vote before a local government can move forward with a municipal electricity program. Voter approval of the measure on June 8 would effectively weed out any potential competition within PG&E's service territory, particularly given that PG&E overwhelms all campaigns with multimillion dollar propaganda blitzes.

Paul Fenn helped craft the state law that created CCA, which allows local governments to purchase power on behalf of their citizens, a vision for an alternative to PG&E that lies squarely in the crosshairs of Prop 16. "Unfortunately, it's mostly up to Republicans in Southern California how it turns out," Fenn said, because this election will attract conservatives to the polls to decide between gubernatorial candidates in the GOP primary. "Unless people in the Bay Area become aware."

BEAT THE CLOCK

Public power advocates are fighting to stop Prop. 16 — but at the same time, in San Francisco, there's a frantic effort to gets its own CCA in place. The city is poised to have completed a CCA contract by June 8 — election day.

Although the contract will not be finally approved by committees, the Board of Supervisors, and the mayor until after the election, City Attorney Dennis Herrera says the steps are solid enough to protect the city against the inevitable PG&E lawsuit.

The approaching election day has sent the SFPUC scrambling in a months-long race against the clock to seal the deal on CleanPower SF, the CCA program that envisions offering energy customers the choice of a climate-friendly, 51 percent renewable mix by 2019.

Had the city agency failed to strike a deal with Power Choice Inc. (PCI), the program's service provider, before the June 8 election, years of effort to get the clean power program off the ground could have gone down the tubes. Mirkarimi, City Hall's strongest advocate for CleanPower SF, urged the SFPUC to get into gear, nicknaming Prop. 16 "the grim reaper."
Things grew tense in April and May as contract negotiating sessions wore on without success, green-power advocates sparred publicly with the SFPUC, and the "grim reaper" approached. A breakthrough came May 21: the SFPUC announced at a meeting of the city's Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) that it had finally signed a term sheet agreement with PCI.

A contract based on the terms is expected to be prepared by early June, Harrington said, adding that it could be introduced to the Board of Supervisors on June 8.