Public power, underground

Pub date May 22, 2007


Public power advocates are looking for new ways to lay the groundwork for city-owned electricity — by just opening up the ground.

The plan could be a significant step forward for the public power movement and may open a new front in the long campaign to replace Pacific Gas and Electric Co. with a city-run agency.

Sup. Chris Daly has asked the city attorney to draft legislation that would require anyone who digs up a city street, for any reason, to install city-owned power and fiber-optic cables in the hole. That would mean, for example, that when PG&E replaces natural gas lines, as it’s doing all over the city right now, the company would also have to install (or allow the city to install) the infrastructure for a municipal power and communications system.

And since the city will be paying to tear up every single street to replace water and sewer pipes over the next two decades, the plan would eventually create a complete network that could be used to deliver public electricity — and Internet and cable TV — to residents and businesses.

"In 15 to 20 years’ time, we would have an electric grid that’s underground and owned by the city," Daly told the Guardian.

The advantage of the plan is that it may be far cheaper (and more practical) to build an underground city network than to condemn and buy out PG&E’s existing, aging system.

The idea isn’t new: Back in 2004, Sup. Tom Ammiano proposed a similar plan and held hearings on it. Ammiano talked about burying electrical cable as well as fiber-optic lines, which he said would be a far better solution to the digital divide than Mayor Gavin Newsom’s wi-fi plan.

Daly’s idea is to use a special tax program to purchase the equipment at bulk prices and have it on hand for whenever the jackhammers come out.

"The beauty of this proposal is you’re getting the efficiency of the streets being dug up," Daly said, which would reduce costs for the overall plan.

And of course, the final system would be all underground — much more aesthetically pleasing and safer during earthquakes than PG&E’s aboveground grid.

The cable itself isn’t cheap, but Daly suggests the city could take advantage of the Mello-Roos Community Facilities Act of 1982, passed by voters in response to the belt-tightening implications of Proposition 13. With Mello-Roos, local officials designate an area — from as small as a house lot to as large as an entire city — as a community facilities district and levy a tax to pay for improvements to the infrastructure in that area. Similar to a "community benefit district," it must be approved by the property owners, and the funds typically go toward better streets, services, and facilities — including electricity.

It costs the city as much as $380 a foot to dig trenches, then backfill them after installing conduit. But if the street is already torn up, the price of laying electric cable is only about $100 a foot, figures we’ve obtained show. The cost for wiring all 900-odd miles of San Francisco streets would run close to $500 million — less than half of what PG&E insists the city would have to pay to buy out its old lines. And individual neighborhoods could be wired for relatively modest amounts of money.

Daly said CFDs could be established by neighborhood or district and coupled with the installation of renewable energy sources, which the city is planning to do through community choice aggregation. For example, residents in Bernal Heights could decide to add a 2 percent property tax to their bills to buy the power lines, the Public Utilities Commission could put a solar array on the nearby reservoir — and a percentage of that neighborhood’s power would be locally owned and operated and cleaner than putting up a peaker plant on Potrero Hill.

"We’re undergoing a dramatic expansion of our renewables in the city," PUC spokesperson Tony Winnicker said. "If we could move our renewables through our own distribution system, there would be enormous cost savings for our ratepayers."

The Department of Public Works would coordinate the work. "We’ve been running the Street Construction Coordination Center for as long as I’ve been here," said spokesperson Christine Falvey, who’s been with the DPW for more 10 years. The center manages the permits for digging up the rights-of-way and tracks construction projects five years into the future to make sure streets aren’t continually wracked with potholes.

A fiber optics feasibility study prepared for the city by Columbia Telecommunications Corp. and released this past January also recommended that the city take advantage of open holes in the roads. "Opportunities for cost-effective installation of fiber arise each day as City crews work in the right of way. At a minimum, San Francisco should immediately adopt a future-looking policy to add to existing fiber and conduit infrastructure at every opportunity to build up critical mass," the report reads.

About half of PG&E’s lines are already underground, and the company is slowly moving to comply with state mandates that call for more buried cables. But the city’s Utility Undergrounding Task Force reported that at PG&E’s current rate, undergrounding the remaining 470 miles of wires would take 50 years.

San Francisco activists have tried repeatedly to take over PG&E’s system and enforce the federal Raker Act, which requires the city to operate a public power system. But every attempt has required a citywide vote to create a new power agency and to authorize the sale of bonds to buy out the utility’s system — and every time that’s gone on the ballot, PG&E has spent millions to defeat it.

The Daly plan would also require a ballot fight — but perhaps not an expensive citywide campaign. The Mello-Roos taxes could be approved neighborhood by neighborhood. The price would most likely be in the millions, not the hundreds of millions it would cost to buy PG&E’s entire system at once. *