The real energy-policy choice

Pub date May 13, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL According to City Attorney Dennis Herrera, if San Francisco wants to see the Potrero Hill power plant, which spews pollution over the southeast part of the city, close down next year, the city’s going to have to operate its own fossil fuel plants in the neighborhood. Some environmentalists say that’s not true — that the city could develop enough renewable energy and use existing backup systems to obviate the need for the so-called peaker plants.

Opposition to the plants comes from the Sierra Club, Supervisors Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi — and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Even for people who spend an inordinate amount of time studying energy policy, it’s a confusing mess of a situation — and San Francisco, of all cities, shouldn’t have to be facing it.

The peaker dilemma exists for a reason: San Francisco has allowed private-sector companies like PG&E and Mirant, which owns the existing Potrero plant, to control the city’s energy systems. The good news is that the fight over the power plants is driving a new move for public power — a move that ought to bring together the public interest activists on both sides of the plant divide.

Sups. Ross Mirkarimi, a peaker foe, and Aaron Peskin, a peaker supporter, plan to introduce a Charter Amendment mandating that the city’s Public Utilities Commission create a plan to establish a retail power agency in San Francisco. The amendment would provide the badly needed kick start to get city officials to act on San Francisco’s historic mandate for a municipal electricity system.

Peskin and Mirkarimi may not agree on the three peaker plants the PUC wants to site at the foot of Potrero Hill, but they do agree that PG&E is up to no good here. The giant private utility desperately wants to keep the city from developing its own electric power plants: the city peakers would be competition for PG&E and would open the door for the city to get more directly into the electricity business. Although the fliers put out by the "Close It Coalition," funded by PG&E, talk about environmental issues, that’s just old-fashioned greenwashing. PG&E is building similar combustion turbine gas-fueled generators all over the state.

Why should this be the city’s only choice?

If there’s going to be a fight over energy policy in San Francisco, it ought to focus on the real long-term questions: Who should control the local grid, and the future supply of electricity, and the decision over how much of the local portfolio should be in renewable resources? Should PG&E continue to hold that power, or should the city take it over?

The movement for public power is exploding all over California. In Marin County, a group called Marin Clean Energy is mounting a sophisticated campaign for a community-controlled power agency that would use 100 percent renewable power. The South San Joaquin County Irrigation District is trying aggressively, against a full-scale PG&E political assault, to buy out PG&E’s distribution facilities and create a new public power system. Stockton is looking at becoming a public power city.

San Francisco is pursuing CCA, but needs to do much more. This is, after all, the only city in the nation that has a mandate under federal law to sell retail electricity.

If the city had created a public power agency years ago, the peakers wouldn’t be an issue. San Francisco would have been able to develop more extensive renewable power sources, create a long-term energy plan, and concentrate on shutting down fossil fuel plants instead of building them.

But whatever the outcome of that fight, it’s time to think about the future — and the future is community-owned energy programs. That’s the choice that ought to be on the ballot in November.

PS: Stop the presses — has Newsom buckled to PG&E? The mayor at the last minute May 13 has orchestrated a delay in the peaker vote — at the behest, we hear, of PG&E, which is begging the mayor to do anything to stop public power. Now he wants to retrofit the Mirant plant. That’s an unacceptable option and needs to be rejected.