By Rebecca Bowe
Photo courtesy Luke Thomas, Fog City Journal
Here’s the scoop: The San Francisco Bay Guardian will get 50 megawatts of wind power, courtesy of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Don’t get excited -- the mayor was only kidding. Newsom’s witty remark came in response to a question by local journalist and blogger Luke Thomas, when he asked the mayor who would own the energy being generated by the municipal wind turbines that are envisioned throughout the city in a report unveiled today.
Newsom’s response: "I hope it's the Bay Guardian."
SFBG publisher Bruce B. Brugmann was delighted by the news, and immediately emailed a San Francisco Chronicle City Hall reporter to say he was available for comment on how he plans to use the power.
The press conference was held to announce the recommendations of San Francisco’s Urban Wind Power Task Force, a group convened to study possibilities for small urban wind projects in the city. The vision involves siting turbines at famous city landmarks, mapping micro-climates to figure out how best to harness wind energy potential, and making it easier for small urban wind projects to be permitted.
“Wind needs to be part of the urban mix,” Newsom said. “There are still a lot of questions, but nonetheless there’s a lot of enthusiasm.” Wind-power demonstration sites could include the Civic Center Plaza, The W Hotel, a new San Francisco Public Utilities Commission headquarters on Golden Gate Ave., and Treasure Island, Newsom said.
My question for Newsom was whether the city’s Community Choice Aggregation effort, which has a stated goal of supplying publicly owned power generated by 51 percent renewable energy by 2017, would be integrated into the bold new wind-development plans. The overarching vision of the Wind Power Task Force report is to develop 50 megawatts of wind power over the next few decades, a much longer time line than the initial 2017 target established by CCA. Newsom replied, “It certainly could be. I haven’t gotten that far along.”
To which we’d like to respond: Did you have a nice time on that PG&E-funded trip to Mexico?
Don’t get me wrong. The idea of harnessing wind to generate electricity on the windswept peninsula of San Francisco is forward-thinking. Having wind turbines sprouting out of high-profile landmarks like Ocean Beach, the Twin Peaks, Treasure Island, the Civic Center, Ocean Beach, and the San Francisco Zoo, as the wind task force proposes, could enliven the buzz surrounding alternative energy. Streamlining the planning process to make it more feasible to install wind turbines could promote a flurry of small urban wind development.
An eventual goal of 50 megawatts in wind power out of the city’s 950-megawatt electricity use is no radical overhaul, but on the whole, the goal of establishing small urban wind projects is laudable. Trouble is, the silence regarding how this renewable-energy initiative could fit into the framework of Clean Power SF, the city’s fledgling CCA program, is deafening. The only thing that cries out louder than that glaring omission is the inclusion of Pacific Gas & Electric Company on the Urban Wind Power Task Force list of technical advisory members.
The City of San Francisco has codified its goals for cleaner, and quite possibly cheaper, energy, within the framework of CCA. By 2017, the municipal government-led program has a target of supplying San Franciscans with power generated by 51 percent renewable-energy sources -- including wind. That’s a level of commitment that takes the threat of global climate change seriously.
But PG&E is trying to snuff out CCA here in San Francisco, and throughout the state. A statewide ballot initiative, if successful, would create an impossibly high barrier of 66 percent of voter approval before a CCA program could be rolled out.
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who chairs the city’s Local Agency Formation Commission and has put years of effort into trying to get CCA off the ground, told me that he likes the idea of urban wind farms, but that the mayor’s strategy of introducing a project without fitting it into the context of the city’s overarching public-power plan completely conflicts with and undermines the city’s push for public power.
“If the administration and the [San Francisco Public Utilities Commission] is sincere, CCA will be the framework for how the wind project will insert itself and fit in,” Mirkarimi said. Instead, projects such as this wind initiative and the Recurrent Energy Sunset Reservoir project are being floated without any inclusion of those who are involved in piecing together the alternative, public power program.
“It underscores many people’s worries that the mayor’s heart is not in this,” Mirakrimi said, referring to CCA. “Whether you’re dropping turbines in the ocean or … siting wind turbines on public property, you’re going to see all of it privately, corporate-sponsored. That’s deliberate,” he added. If financial resources are devoted to public-private partnerships instead of an ambitious framework driven by the public sector, Mirkarimi said, transparency can be lost and the renewable-energy goals may be even harder to reach.
After making the joke about the Bay Guardian, Newsom said the wind projects would simply “allow individuals to own the energy.” He followed up with, “There’s no politics to this.”