A solar plan that works

Pub date April 15, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Solar energy makes so much sense in San Francisco that it’s crazy this city didn’t figure out years ago how to get at least a quarter or more of its power from the sun. And it’s crazy that now, with the financial benefits of solar power improving, the technology improving, and the environmental mandate getting more profound by the day, the city still doesn’t have an effective citywide solar program.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who wants to be known as a green mayor, has a solar proposal on the table that environmental groups like the Sierra Club are reluctantly supporting. But a lot of the supervisors have serious questions — and so do we. At its most basic, Newsom’s plan is a shift of solar resources from the public sector to the private sector and does little to promote a sustainable long-term energy policy.

There’s a way to do solar right in San Francisco, and we can outline a basic blueprint.

1. Start with all the interested parties. Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, with Newsom’s support, created a Solar Task Force in San Francisco — but none of the supervisors were invited. The Sierra Club wasn’t invited. None of the public power advocates were invited. Instead, it was dominated by solar industry people, with Pacific Gas and Electric Company along for the ride, guaranteeing that the proposals would run into political static.

2. Make it work as part of a public power plan. The future of San Francisco’s energy policy has to start and end with the notion that PG&E won’t be the long-term supplier of commercial electricity. The city has a community-choice aggregation (CCA) plan, and any solar programs should be designed to enhance and work with that plan.

3. Don’t shortchange public generation. Newsom is asking the city to take money away from a public-sector plan, which pays for solar panels on city-owned buildings, and shift it to a private-sector program, which would subsidize homeowners and commercial landlords who want to install solar panels. We’re all for encouraging solar on homes and office buildings, and we recognize that current state and federal law are skewed toward private projects. But the city has a huge interest in building its own generation capacity: city buildings now use Hetch Hetchy hydropower, and every kilowatt that can be replaced with solar frees up Hetch Hetchy power for retail sales to local homes and businesses and increases the financial rewards of public power.

4. Use the Berkeley model for private parties. The city of Berkeley is pursuing an excellent program. Homeowners and businesses would be able to borrow money from the city at very low interest (a city can raise capital at around 3 percent these days) to install solar panels and would pay the money back over 20 or 30 years through increased property taxes. This would cost the city nothing, encourages solar installations — and still leaves room for subsidies if they turn out to be necessary.

5. Look at using CCA to buy solar panels in bulk and install them free. Eric Brooks, a public power advocate, suggests this idea, and it’s a good one. A city power agency could buy panels and offer them free to property owners, with the energy going into the city grid. The residents and businesses would see their power bills drop, and the city would see environmental and financial benefits.

6. Demand two-way meters. PG&E doesn’t allow property owners to bank power that they generate beyond what they use. That means the owner of a solar system that’s actually generating surplus money is giving power free to PG&E. The city ought to be pushing for a change in state law to demand two-way electric meters. And as part of a public power plan, San Francisco could allow homeowners and commercial landlords not only to cut their power bills to zero but also to bring in cash by installing solar-generating systems.

7. Recognize that PG&E is part of the problem, not part of the solution. PG&E doesn’t want public power. The company doesn’t want widespread solar generation. In fact, the giant private utility has no incentive to do anything that keeps it from making money by selling power over its lines. You can almost judge a solar plan by one standard — if PG&E is OK with it, it must be a bad idea.

The supervisors are right to question Newsom’s plan, and in the end, they should reject it — and create a new one that meets the key tests of an effective long-term energy program for San Francisco.