Are we green yet?

San Francisco's ambitious clean-power program moves toward approval

Long-term plans for CleanPowerSF include more city-owned renewable energy facilities like the Sunset Reservoir

A contract agreement for San Francisco's innovative clean energy program, CleanPowerSF, could be approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as soon as January, representing a major milestone for efforts to put the city in the retail electricity business.

CleanPowerSF, which stands out as one of California's most ambitious community choice aggregation (CCA) municipal energy programs, would offer San Francisco customers the option of powering their homes with 100 percent renewable energy instead of the standard mix of predominantly gas and nuclear-generated power supplied by PG&E.

According to a draft contract introduced at the board, energy would be purchased on the open market by Shell Energy North America and delivered to residential customers, who would pay a modest premium for the service. The first phase would target a narrow customer base, with plans for expansion.

In the long run, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has committed to constructing city-owned wind farms, solar arrays, and combined-heat-and-power systems to generate green power locally, which would ultimately lock in lower electricity rates — but this remains in an early assessment phase. Energy consultant Paul Fenn of Local Power Inc. is conducting the study.



The fact that a draft contract agreement is under consideration signifies a breakthrough for a program that for years crept along at a snail's pace, as tension simmered between SFPUC officials and members of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), the body overseeing CleanPowerSF implementation.

"We have been waiting for this for so many years," remarked Sup. David Campos, who chairs LAFCo. "We pushed the [SFPUC] really hard."

Yet longtime advocates of San Francisco's CCA, like Eric Brooks and other environmentalists affiliated with the Local Clean Energy Alliance, worry that CleanPowerSF will never hit its stride because it won't be accessible to customers who want to go green but can't afford the higher price tag. In an ironic twist, he and others who previously excoriated the SFPUC for its sluggish progress are now urging the lead agency to pause instead of steamrolling ahead.

"We did not want things to go the way they did," Brooks said. "We're saying, you should not finalize the contract with Shell until we have the build-out information. It enables us to get better rates," he added. With detailed, shovel-ready plans in place, Brooks said, arrangements with Shell could hinge on plans for city-owned generation.

Early plans for city-generated power call for enough projects and retrofits to account for 360 megawatts of efficient and renewable energy capacity, including 31 MW of solar panels and 150 MW from a wind farm, plus a combination of weatherization and other efficiency measures. The Local Clean Energy Alliance estimates that more than 1,000 jobs associated with these projects could be created within the first three years.

SFPUC officials and Campos remain unconvinced that it's a good idea to hold off on finalizing the Shell contract.

"We're all kind of moving toward the same goal," SFPUC spokesperson Charles Sheehan said. "If we wait a year or two years, you don't know what's going to happen in the future. We have to seize the moment."

Campos and Sheehan both said advocates' concerns would be addressed by a contract provision allowing the city to swap green power purchased by Shell with green power produced locally, once the electricity becomes available. The SFPUC also agreed to a provision committing to the build-out program, on a separate track from the Shell contract.