Politics are holding back San Francisco's best shot at reducing carbon emissions
Acidified oceans. Dirty air. Superstorms. Food shortages. Mass migration. War. The International Panel on Climate Change last week released the final installment of its latest authoritative report on the catastrophic effects of global climate change.
In no uncertain terms, the report states, it is urgent that steps be taken to mitigate the worst impacts. The world's cities are the most at risk — yet hold the greatest potential for turning the tide, IPCC scientists noted. Making cities greener is one of the most effective ways to minimize climate change.
But as experts turn to cities in hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, newly released documents suggest that officials in San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's office ordered the most effective strategies for achieving clean energy goals to be removed from the city's plan for combating climate change.
The city's Climate Action Strategy sets out the overarching goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a yardstick consistent with state and regional goals. For 10 years, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission worked on a program that would have given city residents and businesses more access to renewable energy sources to help meet that emissions reduction target.
CleanPowerSF, a municipal power program that would replace Pacific Gas & Electric power for San Francisco customers, would provide electricity from 100 percent, California-certified renewable sources such as solar, wind, small hydro, and other green energy sources.
The Climate Action Strategy calls creation of a renewable energy portfolio a critical strategy for meeting the goal — and that's precisely what CleanPowerSF set out to achieve. Over the course of a decade, millions of dollars were invested and untold staff hours devoted to creating the program.
Yet at the direction of Roger Kim, the mayor's senior advisor on the environment, the city's Department of the Environment removed the Climate Action Strategy's reference to CleanPowerSF before the document was released to the public. The Department of the Environment was also directed to remove reference to PG&E's 100 percent Green Power Option, a program floated as an alternative to CleanPowerSF.
In a Sept. 30 memo to Kim, obtained via a public records request, former Department of Environment Director Melanie Nutter wrote, "At the request of the Mayor's Office, mention of PG&E's 100% Green Power Option and SFPUC's CleanPowerSF program were removed from the Energy Chapter and replaced with the overarching goal of 100% renewable electricity (pgs 16,17)."
Nutter recently stepped down as the director of the agency.
The timing of Nutter's memo is significant. Just weeks earlier, the SFPUC — whose five-member governing board is appointed by the mayor — refused to approve a not-to-exceed rate that would have allowed CleanPowerSF to move forward as planned. Instead of expressing opposition to the rate itself, commissioners expressed their overall opposition to CleanPowerSF before voting it down.
Lee had criticized the cost and mechanisms of CleanPowerSF, without proposing an alternative (see "Power struggle," 9/17/13). His real motivations for deleting these two strategies from the city's Climate Action Strategy report remain unclear, but Lee has long supported PG&E, which stands to lose customers if CleanPowerSF is successful.
Both CleanPowerSF and PG&E's green option were held up as pathways toward a greener future in the Climate Action Strategy until the Mayor's Office intervened, leaving no city mechanisms for most San Franciscans to choose renewable energy sources.
"PG&E's proposed green option and CleanPowerSF could operate in parallel," Nutter wrote in a memo drafted a couple years ago. "CleanPowerSF is likely to have a much greater environmental benefit due to the size of the customer base that would be served, the program's objective to create a market for local renewable power, and the amount of greenhouse gas reductions achieved."
So why then were both of these efforts eliminated from the report at the last minute, after being incorporated by experts in the field? Lee Communications Director Christine Falvey did not provide an answer to this specific Guardian question about the removal decision despite being asked several times.
When the Guardian asked Mayor Lee in March why CleanPowerSF was removed from the report, Lee responded, "I don't think I have a real answer for that."
Also unanswered is the question of how the city will meet its greenhouse gas emission reductions target. A quarter of the city's greenhouse gas emissions derive from residential and commercial electricity, according to the Climate Action Strategy.
Electricity provided by PG&E is only 50 percent emission-free, with nuclear energy as the company's most significant carbon-free power source. SFPUC projections have shown that CleanPowerSF could reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2030.
Another quarter of our emissions come from natural gas usage, and 40 percent of total emissions are belched into the air by automobiles. Lee wants to encourage more electric vehicles, but that won't help much if they're powered by a dirty power portfolio.
Whereas CleanPowerSF represented a carefully crafted plan for hitting these long-term targets, Lee's most recent comments on how these important goals will be reached seem vague at best.
"I think we take all our deliberations on climate action seriously," Lee told the Guardian in March, "and I do think that our focus now has been on energy efficiencies. We are also trying now to beef up the GoSolar program to be sure to catch whatever the state is willing to do, because Governor [Jerry] Brown has been trying to tap where there can be more examples of that."
"The Mayor is open to exploring all avenues that might be available to achieve our energy goals," Falvey told us. "In fact, it will take a variety of strategies working in concert to achieve them, including increasing the energy efficiency of buildings to reduce the total power load, developing in-city renewables, and options for increasing the provision of renewable power at a utility-scale."
Those last two goals are precisely what CleanPowerSF would have done. Critics have decried Lee's move as harmful and politically motivated. "What Mayor Lee has succeeded in doing is to rip the guts out of the new Climate Action Strategy," John Rizzo wrote in a recent Sierra Club newsletter, "rendering it as meaningless as the missed greenhouse-gas reduction targets from 2012."
At the Board of Supervisors' mayor question time in March, Sup. John Avalos asked Lee to direct the Department of Environment to return CleanPowerSF to the Climate Action Strategy and commit to launching the program in 2014.
Lee answered that he could not, saying the program was too problematic and the SFPUC has too many infrastructure repair needs. The SFPUC has pulled its staff from the project to redirect that work into energy infrastructure improvements.
Some are still holding out hope that CleanPowerSF could move forward. San Francisco's Local Agency Formation Commission is set to begin researching what CleanPowerSF "would look like and to address other concerns that the Mayor and SFPUC Commissioners have raised," LAFCo's Senior Program Officer Jason Fried said.
Proponents are also investigating ways to launch the program independently of the mayor and the SFPUC, by partnering with Marin County's version of the program.
"There is talk about joining the Marin Joint Powers Authority," Fried said, "but we will exhaust every option to run our own program. We want the PUC and mayor on board."
While the mayor and the commissioners charged with overseeing the SFPUC seem content to let CleanPowerSF fade into memory, Avalos is not willing to let it go without a fight.
"We're facing the greatest crisis for this city, and our government pulls back on how to achieve this," Avalos said at a March 31 Board of Supervisors committee hearing on the Climate Action Strategy. "If we want to be a great city, it's up to us to generate the political will to implement these strategies."
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.