The missing element of the Renewable Energy study

Pub date December 3, 2012
WriterTim Redmond
SectionPolitics Blog

Since San Francisco’s Local Agency Formation Commission is meeting Dec. 7 to talk about renewable energy, I went and read the 100-page report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Renewable Energy, which offers 39 different suggestions for meeting the goal of 100 renewable electricity in the city by 2020.

That’s a pretty ambitious goal. The guy who set it, Gavin Newsom, loved lofty, ambitious projects, particularly when he was never going to be the one to carry them out. So too here: Newsom announced the city’s goal in 2010, shortly before he left for the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. Ed Le convened the task force earlier this year, and the members, most of whom have legitimate qualifications for the job, got right to work.

The most important conclusion of the report: Yes, it’s financially and technologically feasible to generate all of San Francisco’s electricity from reneweable sources, and we can get their in a short eight years. One key element: More distributed generation — that is, the city needs to create financial and regulatory incentives for people to put solar panels on their roofs. In San Francisco, with sun much of the year (and small houses), a rooftop solar installation can pretty much power the average single-family home and can pick up a fair share of the load of the typical four-unit building.

But while the report gives a shout-out to CleanPowerSF, which will soon be offering 100 percent renewable energy service (for a slightly higher price), and talks about the need for the city to build its own renewable generation facilities, which have to be a part of the plan. But it has a glaring omission — it doesn’t once mention public power.

Why is that an omission? Because San Francisco is never getting to 100 percent renewables while Pacific Gas & Electric Co. still controls the grid.

Right now, with today’s technology, you can’t get close to 100 percent without a significant amount of distributed generation. Lots and lots of people have to generate their own power — at which point, they no longer need PG&E (except that, by law, the grid is the default storage battery, but that’s going to change soon, too). In simple terms, distributed generation puts private utilities out of business. So they won’t ever go for it, and will — quietly, behind the scenes — so everything possible to keep if from happening.

Likewise demand management, something the Renewable Energy Task Force discusses at length. San Francisco already gets about 40 percent of its electricity from the Hetch Hethcy hydro project; If the city could reduce its energy use by 20 percent, that’s 20 percent we don’t have to generate. And reducing use is way cheaper than building new generation facilities.

But why would PG&E want to sell less electricity? There are all sorts of state laws mandating efficiency, but no PG&E CEO is going to make that a big push; it costs the company money. A PG&E that sells 20 percent less electricity is a smaller PG&E, with smaller staff, smaller revenue, and smaller profits. 

That’s why the only way the key components of distributed generation and demand management are ever going to work is if San Francisco gets rid of PG&E and sets up a municipal system. Around the country, the munis are leading the way in renewables, because they have no stockholders to satisfy.

At least that ought to be part of the report, no?