Fizzling energy

Political stalemate impedes green power program

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Supporters of CleanPowerSF rally outside City Hall.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

A plan for a municipal power program that would offer 100 percent green energy to San Francisco customers was stalled on Aug. 13, prompting Sup. John Avalos to explore what legal options might be available to bring the program to fruition without further delay.

Prior to that San Francisco Public Utilities Commission hearing, supporters of CleanPowerSF rallied on the steps of City Hall, urging Mayor Ed Lee and members of the commission to approve a not-to-exceed rate, a technical hurdle that must be cleared before the program can advance. SFPUC staff cannot formalize a contract for purchasing power on the open market until that maximum rate has been formally established, so as long as it goes unapproved, CleanPowerSF lingers in limbo.

"We call on the Mayor's Office to stop impeding progress with heavy-handed politics," said Shawn Marshall, executive director of Local Energy Aggregation Network (LEAN) — a group that assists with clean-energy municipal power programs. "And we ask the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to stay focused on its job of implementing a program that was approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last September. That's almost a year ago, folks."

But after more than two hours of public comment in which dozens of advocates voiced support for moving ahead with the program, SFPUC commissioners voted down a motion to approve the rate, leaving CleanPowerSF in limbo with no clear path forward.

 

COMMISSIONER CONCERNS

Commissioners Francesca Vietor and Anson Moran were the only ones on the commission to favor the rate approval, while Ann Moller Caen, Vince Courtney, and President Art Torres shot it down.

"I feel like today is a historic moment for the SFPUC as well as the city of San Francisco," Vietor said as she introduced the motion at the beginning of the meeting, "to become a leader in combating climate change."

Rather than focus on the question of whether or not to establish a top rate of 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (a reduced price from an earlier proposal that sparked an outcry from critics because of the sticker shock), Torres and Caen criticized CleanPowerSF before casting "no" votes.

Caen said she'd "always had problems with the opt-out situation," referring to a system that will automatically enroll utility customers into the program, while Torres criticized the project for changing shape since its inception, saying, "at the end of the day, this is not what San Franciscans had anticipated."

But after straying well beyond the scope of a discussion about the not-to-exceed rate, commissioners who shot down CleanPowerSF didn't provide SFPUC staff with any hints on how to allay their concerns. Some might interpret the hearing outcome as a death knell for CleanPowerSF, but Avalos has taken up the cause of pushing for implementation.

Unable to attend the hearing in person, Avalos sent legislative aide Jeremy Pollock to convey his concerns. "We all understand the politics of the situation," his statement noted. "The Board of Supervisors and every major environmental group in the City support this program. The Mayor, PG&E, and its union oppose it. I know you are feeling a lot of pressure from both sides. But we cannot afford further political gamesmanship to cause additional delays in an attempt to kill this program."

The effort to implement CleanPowerSF is mired in politics. For Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Northern California's largest utility, the enterprise represents an encroachment into prime service territory and a threat to the power company's monopoly.