LAFCo and SFPUC joint meeting: The clock is ticking

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By Rebecca Bowe

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In the next few years, San Francisco residents will have the opportunity to switch to electricity that is publicly owned, more environmentally friendly, and either the same price or cheaper than power supplied by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. -- if all goes according to plan.

That’s turning into a big “if.”

At a joint meeting held between the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) last Friday, LAFCo chair Sup. Ross Mirkarimi tried his best to start a fire under everyone’s rear. Clean Power SF, a public power program that will supplant PG&E in the city, had better get into gear without any foot-dragging or hesitation, Mirkarimi warned.

What’s the hurry? A proposed, PG&E-backed statewide ballot measure has cast a pall over Clean Power SF and other municipalities’ efforts at crafting public power alternatives, or Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) programs.

The PG&E-backed ballot measure would require 66 percent of voter approval before any local government could spend so much as a dime establishing a CCA, effectively creating an insurmountable hurdle. If successful, the ballot measure would snuff out any PG&E competition before it even caught on. The utility is poised to spend millions collecting signatures and pushing it through, and it has until Dec. 21 to gather the 694,354 signatures needed to place it on the ballot next year.

LAFCo and the SFPUC, charged with overseeing the creation and implementation of San Francisco’s CCA, met in closed session on Friday to discuss the ballot measure, which represents a direct threat to their years of combined effort to set up Clean Power SF. Although the discussion was confidential, Sup. Mirkarimi told the Guardian later that he believes “the city has got to confront this more vigorously. We don’t have the luxury of time, especially with a gun being held to the head of CCA.”

The commissions are working together to draft a request for proposals (RFP) seeking a provider for the CCA program. The Board of Supervisors must approve the RFP before it’s issued, which could happen as soon as Oct. 20.

At Friday’s meeting, CCA Program Director Mike Campbell of the SFPUC told commissioners that he and other staff members had drafted two possible RFPs: one that adheres strictly to the CCA vision encoded in a 2007 city ordinance adopting the plan, and a second that uses that vision as a “benchmark,” to allow for more wiggle room. “It’s unlikely we’d be able to find a single bidder able or willing” to meet all the criteria set down in the ordinance, Campbell noted. Infusing some flexibility into the request might attract more potential providers and give the city more options, he said.

Mirkarimi commented, “Modifying the original goals makes me feel very uneasy,” but added that time is of the essence due to the threat of the PG&E ballot measure. LAFCo commissioners rejected the second option as it was written, but said they were open to working with SFPUC staff to reach a compromise version that would integrate the two suggested RFPs.

In San Francisco’s case, the difference between the city’s would-be CCA and PG&E-supplied power is dramatic in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2008 PG&E Corporate Responsibility Report, the utility relies on natural gas and coal for 47 percent of its energy mix, not to mention 22 percent nuclear power generation. In contrast, Clean Power SF would provide customers with an electric mix generated by 51 percent renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2017, with plans to accumulate more green power as the program progresses.

As usual, there were few in attendance at the Friday afternoon meeting, but those who did turn out are heavily invested in the cause in one way or another. Eric Brooks, a public power activist representing the San Francisco Green Party and Our City, cautioned that “we’re going to lose the balance that keeps this thing economically intact” if the criteria is weakened in the RFP. Joshua Arce, executive director of the environmental justice organization Brightline Defense Project, echoed that in his opinion, “the flexibility option is too flexible.”

Jonathan Kaufman, who works for public-relations firm Solem & Associates, did not stand up to offer an opinion, but seemed to be carefully taking note of the meeting’s proceedings. Kaufman, who seemed interested even in the informal chat public-power advocates were having in the corridor outside the Board Chambers, told the Guardian he was there to “monitor” CCA proceedings for “clients.” On its Web site, Solem & Associates boasts that PG&E has been one of its corporate clients for 30 years.