A new route to public power

Pub date May 22, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Public power isn’t a hard sell in principle. For starters, public electric utilities in California offer consistently lower rates than private companies, and in many cases, the rates are far lower. Municipal utilities are more likely to be environmentally responsible and seek better conservation measures and renewable energy sources. San Francisco’s under the thumb of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which has soaring rates, is plagued by reliability problems, and operates a nuclear power plant.

Besides, this is the only city in the nation that has a federal mandate, the Raker Act, requiring public power.

But the politics are tough: cities that want to go into the power business traditionally buy out the private company’s existing wires, polls, and meters — but that costs a big chunk of money. And any bond act to buy out PG&E’s system requires a citywide vote — which means fighting PG&E’s tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash. Over and over again since the 1930s, the company has defeated citywide bond acts with the pure power of money.

But now Sup. Chris Daly has an approach that might change the calculus.

As Amanda Witherell reports ("Public Power, Underground," page 13), every street in San Francisco is going to be torn up in the next few years, either by PG&E, which is replacing gas lines, or by the city, which is replacing water and sewer lines. Daly wants to require everyone who digs a ditch in a San Francisco street to allow the city to run electric wire and fiber-optic cable at the same time. Since the main cost of burying power lines is the excavation, the city would be able, over the course of 15 years or so, to create a cost-effective, safe, and modern underground utility system. Then there would be no need to buy out PG&E; city officials could simply start selling power on the public lines.

It’s not that simple, of course: the wire itself isn’t cheap — and Daly is looking at a finance system that would require property owners to vote to tax themselves to pay for it. And it’s going to take a long time to complete.

But the system could be built one neighborhood at a time and could be connected to new solar generating systems that the city is planning to construct anyway. So the residents of, say, Bernal Heights or the Haight or the Mission or Bayview could agree to pay for a local city-run electric project. The solar panels would generate power (cheaply), the city-owned lines would carry them, and the savings in energy costs would more than compensate for the modest tax increase.

The city’s Public Utilities Commission has only begun to look into the idea, but staffers there say it’s entirely feasible.

This proposal needs to move forward with all possible dispatch. The supervisors should authorize money for a full-scale feasibility study to look at the costs, the schedule, and the ways neighborhood-based public power projects can be started as soon as possible. The board should approve Daly’s legislation, and the mayor should sign it.

And the public power movement ought to get behind this plan. It’s not an instant answer — but then, neither is buying out PG&E’s system; the litigation alone might take a decade. And if San Francisco can create green public power in even one district, the idea is going to spread. *