Dirty war over clean power

City program attacked by PG&E allies — and enviros

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Large-scale solar arrays like this one are expensive.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MIRISSA NEFF

tredmond@sfbg.com

It was supposed to be part of Ed Harrington's legacy, and the chief of the city's Public Utilities Commission delayed his retirement to make sure it happened.

But six months after the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to move forward with CleanPowerSF, the plan is under attack from all sides. Pacific Gas & Electric Company's house union is spending big chunks of money to shoot it down. The press is loaded with accounts of how expensive it's going to be for customers. Advocates on the left are blasting it as too limited.

Critics say Harrington's replacement, Harlan Kelly, is far less interested in making a program work that clearly lacks the support of a PG&E-friendly mayor.

That's left Sup. David Campos, City Hall's chief proponent for CleanPowerSF, trying to move forward with a program that, for all its flaws, is the city's best chance to put a crack in PG&E's monopoly.

CleanPowerSF will offer San Franciscans a greener alternative to PG&E power, most of which comes from nonrenewable sources. The city will buy renewable power in bulk, through Shell Energy, and distribute it to customers along PG&E's lines.

A similar system is working well in Marin County, and communities all over the state are looking to see if a city the size of San Francisco — where PG&E has kept out any hint of competition for a century — can pull it off.

Clean power is more expensive right now, and that's one sticking point: City officials recognize that not all San Franciscans will be willing to pay a premium (of perhaps $10 to $20 a month) for the option. An SFPUC survey released March 25 showed that about 45 percent of the city's customers would pay extra for clean power and stick with the new program. Earlier studies suggested that 90,000 customers will remain with CleanPowerSF — enough to make the system financially viable.

(Interestingly, the areas most likely to pay extra to avoid fossil fuels are not the wealthiest parts of town. Most of the customers would be on the Eastside, in communities like the Mission, Potrero Hill, the Haight, and Noe Valley.)

The bigger problem with the current debate is that advocates and city officials can't agree how much money the city ought to spend, on what schedule, to build its own renewable generation system, which would eventually replace much of the power purchased by Shell.

"In the past we would have figures and claims from all sides, and Ed Harrington would look at the numbers and figure it all out, and everybody trusted him," Campos said. "But we don't have Ed any more, and Kelly doesn't seem to be as strongly behind this."

Building a green-power infrastructure was always a critical part of the CleanPowerSF plan. And once the city has a system up and running, it can use the revenue stream to float bonds to pay for building solar, wind, and cogeneration facilities.

Over time, the locally generated power would be far cheaper than what anyone can offer today, meaning rates would come down.

"We agreed to move the sales agreement forward to get the system started, then keep working on the build-out," Campos explained.

But a campaign by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents PG&E employees and is historically allied with the company's political goals, is trying to scare customers away with claims of high rates. And in fact, the first rate proposals were above what Campos and others were hoping for.

So the Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees CleanPowerSF for the supervisors, and the SFPUC, have send staff back to try to find ways to cut rates.

Meanwhile, Kelly wants to de-couple the public build-out from the Shell agreement, in essence launching the program with the most expensive elements in place — and potentially undermining the future of a publicly owned energy infrastructure.