Step up and save CCA

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EDITORIAL Two things became abundantly clear at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission meeting July 26th: The Community Choice Aggregation program is off track — and General Manager Ed Harrington has no interest in making it work. The supervisors need to move aggressively to save CCA.

Since 2007, when a draft implementation plan was released, the goals of the program — which is supposed to offer a cleaner alternative to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. — have shifted fairly dramatically. No longer does the plan seek to meet PG&E's rates. It won't be aimed at the entire city to start. And the PUC is putting most of its effort into a short-term contract to buy green power from Shell Energy North America — and all-but ignoring the more important moves to build a publicly owned energy-generation infrastructure.

CCA, which allows cities to buy power in bulk and resell it to customers, is a step in the right direction. The program now before the PUC would put San Francisco in the public power business — to a degree. But as the financial projections for the program demonstrate, the real savings and the real revenue won't come until San Francisco replaces PG&E as the owner and operator of the local grid. A full-scale public power system would allow the city to both increase renewable power and cut rates — and would bring hundreds of millions into the treasury in the process (see "Mud Money," 6/26/08).

Still, CCA offers many benefits — including the chance for the city to build local renewable energy facilities. And that's where the PUC's efforts ought to be focused.

During discussion of the proposed contract July 26th, Harrington was largely negative and talked repeatedly as if he didn't think the original program could work. He kept saying that renewable power was more costly (true, today — but not after the city starts building its own facilities). He said that the goals the "advocates" (who include a majority of the Board of Supervisors) have demanded were unrealistic. And most of the commissioners seemed clueless.

That's a terrible way to launch one of the most important environmental and financial initiatives in modern San Francisco history. Marin County is already well on the way to creating a working CCA system. Other counties are moving forward. And San Francisco, the only city in the nation with a federal mandate for public power, can't get its civic act together.

The supervisors need to get involved, quickly. The Local Agency Formation Commission, which is overseeing this project, should haul Harrington in for a hearing as soon as possible. Among other things, the LAFCO members should ask why Harrington is so determined that the project won't work; why his proposal is geared to a small number of residents and businesses who would face higher rates for power; and what his plans are to create a local energy generation infrastructure that over the long run would be dramatically cheaper and greener than anything PG&E (which has been in the background here trying to undermine CCA) will be able to offer.

The problems with CCA reflect the immense challenges of putting this program in the hands of a commission a majority of whose members were appointed by a mayor who opposed public power, managed by someone who has never supported municipalization efforts. Harrington and the SFPUC appear to be setting CCA up to fail. The supervisors need to step in before that happens — and every candidate for mayor needs to be pushed to publicly support CCA and make this an important campaign issue. And they need to promise that they'll appoint people with real public power credentials who will replace Harrington and shake up the next PUC.

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