Enviro justice groups spar with SFPUC on power program

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A coalition of environmental groups is advocating for CleanPower SF as a tool for green job creation.

A Pew Research Center analysis based on the latest U.S. Census data has found that Latino and African American households weathered deeper blows in the economic recession, driving the wealth gap between whites and minorities to an historic high. As things stand under current economic conditions, the Washington Post reports, the median net worth of a white family is now 20 times that of a black family, and 18 times that of a Latino family -- roughly twice the gap that existed before the recession, and the biggest gap ever since 1984.

Meanwhile, a report issued yesterday by the Natural Resources Defense Council hit on another alarming trend, outlining the water-related challenges coastal cities will face as climate change takes its toll. The report highlights sea level rise, land erosion, saltwater intrusion, flooding, impacts to fisheries, and more frequent and intense storm events. (That's to say nothing of wildfires.)

In San Francisco, a small group of environmental justice advocates has been working for the better part of a decade to help craft a municipal energy program with the aim of turning the tide, at least on a small local scale, to promote greater economic equality and fend off the worst impacts of climate change. Advocates from groups such as Global Exchange, the Local Clean Energy Alliance, the Sierra Club, the Brightline Defense Project, the San Francisco Green Party, and others have long envisioned CleanPower SF as a way to bolster local job creation, particularly for people who reside in the city's low-income neighborhoods. The twin goal of CleanPower SF, also known as community choice aggregation (CCA), is to launch a local response to climate change by offering San Franciscans the option of purchasing clean electricity generated from local, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

At a July 26 meeting of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) in City Hall, however, it became clear that this overarching vision for the program wasn't gaining traction with the agency that is tasked with implementing it. As the program inches closer to a review by the Board of Supervisors, advocates have reached an impasse with SFPUC staff as to how the whole endeavor should proceed.

Grassroots advocates raised concerns that the latest proposal for CleanPower SF amounted to a setup for failure, unless there was a concerted effort to plan for robust development of local green-energy sources. While SFPUC staff indicated that the current proposal would result in new jobs at call centers, advocates said more needed to be done to plan for installing local energy-generating sources which could truly bolster local job creation.

Yet SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington said that what the advocates were asking for wasn't realistic. He dismissed the original vision for CCA, articulated in a 2007 board-approved ordinance, as "not a realistic goal." And he spoke in a condescending tone about the grassroots stakeholders, saying, "People saw that they would like green power to be cheaper, and therefore they believed that it was.”

Under the proposal that the SFPUC described to commissioners July 26, monthly electricity rates under CleanPower SF would be at least $7 more than estimated PG&E rates. That's a key difference from the original draft implementation plan, hammered out in 2007, to "meet or beat" rates offered by the investor-owned utility.

The new proposal has also been scaled down considerably since 2007. As planned, CleanPower SF would contract with Shell Energy North America to begin offering 30 megawatts of 100 percent green power to just 75,000 municipal customers by the spring of 2012. That's assuming most of the 229,000 residential account holders who will initially be enrolled will opt out; and SFPUC media relations representative Charles Sheehan noted that the full customer base would eventually roll up to the original goal of 340,000 customers. Still, the target at the outset represents just a fraction of the 360 megawatts of power for 340,000 customers originally called for, with a 51 percent renewable energy mix. Under this new scheme, electricity would be purchased through Shell on the open market, with long-term plans to develop local sources but no solid short-term goals for achieving that end.

SFPUC Commissoner Francesca Vietor asserted that SFPUC staff should continue working closely with the grassroots stakeholders and find a way to seriously plan for building local renewable sources, which could ultimately serve to drive municipal rates down and make the program more viable and competitive. "I think local build-out is a really exciting and important opportunity, and a critical piece of the CCA program," she said.

Commissioners continued the decision on whether to approve parameters for a term sheet and submit it to the full board, pushing the discussion back until September unless a special meeting is called. Several commissioners raised concerns about the financial risk to the city, since the program would have higher rates than PG&E and is designed in such a way that a bulk of power would have to be purchased up front before the agency can determine how many customers will opt out.

“I was actually glad to hear a lot of commissioners raise a lot of concerns, especially about the financials," Eric Brooks, a long-time CCA advocate speaking on behalf of the Green Party and an organization called Our City, told commissioners. "The more of a local build-out … the lower your price, and the lower you can get in terms of the risks."

June Brashares, green energy director at Global Exchange, echoed Brooks' comments in a telephone interview with the Guardian. "The proposal they're doing now is really vulnerable," because the higher rates will make the alternative power program less competitive, she said. "The whole reason for CCA -- yes, we want cleaner energy -- but the real key is the building of local energy sources to create an economic boost, and local green careers. And that's not at the core of what the SFPUC is doing."

This article has been corrected from an earlier version.