Newsom and the Clean Energy Act

EDITORIAL A progressive measure that would make San Francisco one of the greenest cities in the nation will be on the ballot this fall. It’s designed to lower energy costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote green-collar jobs. It has all the elements that Mayor Gavin Newsom has been talking about in his high-profile speeches, press conferences, and celebrity appearances. It’s a perfect vehicle for a mayor who wants to stand out as a candidate for governor of California. It has the backing of some of Newsom’s close allies, like state Sen. Mark Leno.

That’s why Newsom ought to support the Clean Energy Act.

The charter amendment, sponsored by Sups. Aaron Peskin and Ross Mirkarimi, seeks to make San Francisco more energy independent. It sets ambitious goals for renewable energy and would put the city on track to create its own public power system. It’s not a radical measure — in fact, it’s milder than we would have liked. It doesn’t mandate an immediate takeover of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s facilities. It doesn’t turn the Public Utilities Commission into an elected body. And no matter what lies PG&E puts out, it won’t raise electric rates or cost the taxpayers money.

It does, however, mandate that the PUC look at the best ways to ensure that by 2017, 51 percent of the electricity used in the city comes from renewable resources. By 2040, that number should be 100 percent. And the evidence from across the nation shows that the best way to promote renewable energy is to shift from private control of utilities to public power.

Again, that’s hardly a radical notion: more than 2,000 cities in the United States have public power. Palo Alto is among them; so are Alameda and Santa Clara. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District provides reliable service to Sacramento County at rates 30 percent below what PG&E charges customers in adjoining areas — and SMUD has one of the best records in the nation for promoting conservation and renewable energy.

Of course, the very existence of any sort of plan to consider energy alternatives for San Francisco seems to terrify PG&E. Already the giant private utility is pulling political strings and retailing outrageous lies to try to scare the supervisors away from placing the charter amendment on the ballot. And we expect to see a savage, multimillion-dollar campaign against the measure this fall.

That’s because PG&E wants no hint of competition, no chance that the city might actually consider the benefits of public power. It’s no secret why. When you look at the facts, compare how public and private systems have fared in the past decade, and line up the financial figures and the prospects for sustainable energy policies, public power wins.

The biggest misinformation PG&E is putting out these days involves the cost of creating and running a public power system in San Francisco. The company is throwing out numbers like $4 billion, and suggesting that the taxpayers would be on the hook for all of it if the city tried to take over the company’s system.

For starters, there’s nothing in the Clean Energy Act that requires a takeover. It might turn out to be more prudent, for example, to slowly build a new city-owned infrastructure. More important, if the city did decide to buy out PG&E’s wires, poles, and meters, the cost would be nowhere near what the company is claiming.

How much is the system really worth? Well, one way to find out is to check the assessed value, the figure the state uses for property-tax purposes. And as Amanda Witherell reported July 2 (see "The dirty fight over clean power"), the state says all of PG&E’s property within San Francisco city limits is worth only $1.2 billion — and that includes the company’s downtown office complex, which is worth at least several hundred million. So the actual cost of the system might wind up at less than a quarter of what PG&E claims.

And none of that money — none — would come from taxpayers. The PUC could issue only revenue bonds, backed by future electricity sales, to finance any buyout or construction. No tax money would ever be in play. And our past analyses have consistently shown that the city could buy out PG&E’s system, cut electric rates, and still wind up with a sizable surplus every year.

Newsom is aware of all of this, and has said that he’s willing to consider supporting public power. Now there’s a measure heading for the ballot that would also mesh with all of the mayor’s environmental goals. The only argument against it is that PG&E — in the past a backer of the mayor — doesn’t want it to pass.

Newsom needs to support the Clean Energy Act. If he doesn’t, it will demonstrate that he lacks the backbone to stand up to special interests — and has no business running for governor of this state.

A kickoff press conference on the Clean Energy Act will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, July 22 on the steps of City Hall.