Parting gift

Harrington finally brings CleanPowerSF to City Hall, hoping his SFPUC legacy will be a city that produces its own renewable energy

San Francisco could see more renewable energy projects, like the covering of Sunset Reservoir in solar panels, under CleanPowerS

Retirement is knocking at Ed Harrington's door. But the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission general manager is hesitating, not quite able to muster the will needed to walk out the door. He has something that he wants to finish first.

The sage city veteran has labored for years to launch an historic program so transformative that it would finally allow city residents and businesses to reject a homicidal utility monopoly and the dirty electricity that it sells. Success could be mere weeks away; failure would be a bitter blow.

Twice in the past 27 months, Harrington and his staff have fumbled efforts to launch the city's long-promised community choice aggregation (CCA) program. The program, CleanPowerSF, would give Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) customers the option of switching over to a publicly backed electricity provider selling green, climate-friendly power.

The energy would continue to be ferried into homes and other buildings over PG&E's electrical grid, and customers who switch would continue to receive their bills from PG&E. Those gas and electricity bills could initially swell by an average of one quarter, but the mix of power that they pay for would jump from 20 percent renewable up to 100 percent renewable.

Harrington's previous CleanPowerSF launch schemes collapsed in mid-2010 and again early last year without getting off of the ground, largely because nobody — neither the city nor private industry — would shoulder the large financial risks. Unlike those failed efforts, which would have offered a private company virtual carte blanche to sell power to as many PG&E customers as possible, the latest CCA proposal resembles a successful program operating in Marin County. The Marin program started small in early 2010 and is already growing at a rapid clip as it pursues true energy independence.

For the next few weeks, despite having previously planned to retire in August, Harrington will oversee a last-ditch effort to drive approval of his latest iteration of CleanPowerSF by the Board of Supervisors. "I've offered to stay into September so that we can have the CCA discussions at the board," Harrington told the Bay Guardian.

Harrington declined to discuss the latest version of CleanPowerSF, the real and perceived financial risks of which will be hashed out by the Budget and Finance Committee, referring questions to a spokesperson.

But environmentalists and local "green jobs" advocates who just 12 months ago were panning CleanPowerSF, ready to block its passage through the board, are now lauding it. They say the change came about after Harrington met directly with them and seemingly changed his own mind about how the program should be run.

The program would initially see Shell Corp. sell 20 to 30 megawatts of renewable electricity generated in far-flung places to fewer than 100,000 residential customers. Instead of fostering new supplies of renewable energy, San Francisco residents may initially buy power at premium prices from existing wind, solar, and other green facilities. That might make San Franciscans feel warm and fuzzy, but it wouldn't necessarily reduce the nation's overall carbon footprint.

The activists agree that it's a crying shame to get into bed with an evil multinational oil company. But they say it's an acceptable start, as long as the program evolves into something far more meaningful — into something resembling the Marin Clean Energy model. Like in Marin, the activists want San Francisco to use CleanPowerSF revenues to help build its own solar, wind, and other renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, many of them right here in city limits. They want the city to sell those power and the energy efficiency gains directly to CleanPowerSF customers.