We've got to make the push to public power if we care about our environment's future
EDITOR'S NOTES The San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission is holding a hearing Dec. 7 on the Mayor's Renewable Energy Task Force report. That may not sound like the most exciting moment in any of our lives — but it's actually worth talking about, a lot. Because the city has a goal of reaching 100 percent renewable energy in just eight more years, and the task force think it can be done — and the report, while it has its moments, completely screws up the central tenet of any long-term renewables policy.
Background: Former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was prone to making sweeping press statements about things he never really intended to do, proclaimed in 2010 that San Francisco would be free of all fossil fuel electricity in 10 years. Then he went on his merry way to the Lieutenant Governor's Office.
It fell to his successor, Ed Lee, to figure out how to make this happen, so Lee appointed a task force to study the situation. A lot of the members were environmental activists; some were experts in solar energy. One, Ontario Smith, worked for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., hung up five minutes into the first phone-conference meeting, and took his name off the final report.
If you don't think this is serious business, you haven't been looking out the window this past week. Scientists are now saying that it's already too late to prevent the surface temperature of the Earth from rising three degrees, which means volatile and dangerous weather patterns are going to be part of the future anyway, and things might get way, way worse. San Francisco's energy policy isn't going to prevent China from burning coal, but it's a step — and a 100 percent renewable portfolio would be a signal to other cities (and countries) that this is economically and technically feasible.
The report has 39 recommendations, many of them simple, practical, and laudable. It talks (correctly) about the importance of distributed generation — that is, small-scale solar and other renewable systems on houses and commercial buildings. It gives a nod to CleanPowerSF, the city's community-choice aggregation system.
And it never once mentions public power.
In fact, from the tone of the report, the city plans to get to 100 percent renewable generation with the support and assistance of PG&E.
Let me give you a ring on the clue phone, folks: It isn't going to happen.
Private utilities don't have any interest in distributed generation, because it, quite literally, destroys their business model. If I have solar panels on my roof that meet my family's energy demands, I have no need for PG&E anymore (except to use the company's grid as a storage battery system, but soon we won't need that, either). The only functional path to 100 percent renewables in a dense city is small-scale generation — and PG&E stands directly in the way.
I've always been a proponent of public ownership of essential services — water, power, streets and roads, firefighting and police operations, broadband, etc. But when it comes to electricity, this is more than a financial and resource-control issue. I see no path to a carbon-free (and nuclear-free) future, in San Francisco or anywhere else, as long as private companies make profits generating power in one place, shipping it along their private lines, and selling it someplace else.
Public power is not sufficient to create Newsom's energy dream — but it's absolutely necessary. And I hope the members of LAFCO make that point — and suggest that the task force update its report to reflect economic and political reality.