Support SF’s Clean Energy Act

Pub date July 8, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The long-awaited charter amendment that would transform San Francisco’s energy policy will come before the Board of Supervisors within the next few weeks. The measure, known as the Clean Energy Act, deserves strong support.

The proposal is fairly simple, but far-reaching. It includes ambitious targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and a mandate that the city shift to entirely renewable electricity by 2040. That would turn Mayor Gavin Newsom’s green city rhetoric into enforceable reality and put the city where it ought to be — in the forefront of global efforts to end reliance on fossil fuels.

And the sponsors of the charter amendment, Sups. Ross Mirkarimi and Aaron Peskin, realize that the only way the city will ever get serious about sustainable energy programs is to get rid of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s monopoly and shift to a publicly-run local utility.

The measure would, for the first time, create a detailed municipal energy policy and put control of the city’s energy future in the hands of city officials, not those of a private corporation. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission would have a mandate to ensure that by 2017, 51 percent of the electricity used in the city came from renewable sources. By 2030 that number would rise to 75 percent, and by 2040 the city would be seeking a 100 percent renewable portfolio. (Energy from the city’s existing Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric project would count as renewable power, and since Hetch Hetchy already covers a significant percent of the municipal load, the targets are entirely reasonable.)

The PUC would have to prepare a report every two years advising the supervisors on how it is moving to meet the targets.

The measure also directs the PUC to come up with a plan to put San Francisco into the business of retail electric power. That’s something activists have been pushing for since the 1920s. The federal law that gave the city the unique right to build a dam in a national park additionally mandated that San Francisco use the electricity from the dam to establish a public power system. The city has been in violation of the Raker Act for some 90 years now. As we’ve reported in numerous stories going back to 1969, the city built the dam in Yosemite and managed to construct a world-class municipal water system — but PG&E, through bribery, corruption, and political influence, hijacked the dam’s electric power. Although San Francisco is the only city in the nation with a federal public-power mandate and one of the few that owns and operates a major public hydroelectric project, residents and businesses are still stuck with PG&E’s soaring rates and lousy service.

And PG&E — which uses fossil fuels for much of its power and operates a nuclear plant — won’t make even the state’s mild mandate of 20 percent renewable energy by 2010.

Public power cities all over California have lower rates and better service. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, one of the largest public power systems in the state, is a national leader on renewable energy and conservation efforts. And public power makes tremendous economic sense: a municipal utility would bring tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars per year into the city’s coffers. That money could be invested in solar, wind, and tidal energy, and some could go to reduce the structural budget deficit that haunts City Hall every year.

PG&E is already nervous about the prospect of a renewable energy and public power measure passing this fall, and has cranked up a campaign of lies and misinformation. The news media are already starting to pick up the pro-PG&E stance — the San Francisco Business Times is running a "poll" on public power that leads off with the tired old claim that "San Francisco can’t make the buses run on time. But it can find power to keep the lights on?" (A bit of reality here: urban bus systems are tough to run because they lose money. Public power systems make money. The lights stay on in Sacramento, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Alameda, Santa Clara, and a lot of other cities — and the people who live there pay less, get more reliable service, and are more likely to see reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.)

Six votes are needed to put the Clean Energy Act on the ballot. Any supervisor who doesn’t support it will forever be known as someone who puts the interests of PG&E ahead of the needs of San Francisco, the nation, and the planet.