Clean energy: the next moves

Pub date November 11, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Pacific Gas and Electric Co., its political hacks, and to a great extent, the San Francisco Chronicle all seem to take the same line on the defeat of Proposition H: It’s done. The people have spoken. Public power has been on the ballot 11 times, and it’s never passed.

And — as is always the case with a losing campaign — supporters of the Clean Energy Act are discussing what went wrong, looking at how the measure was written, the details, the language, the scope to see if there was something that could have been done differently.

But that ignores the central reality of the campaign for Prop. H: PG&E spent nearly $10.3 million to kill it. And it’s very, very hard to fight that kind of money.

The truth is, there was nothing wrong with the language or scope of Prop. H. If it had passed, it would have given the city the tools to create a sustainable energy portfolio that would be the envy of the nation. In fact, there is little doubt that the Clean Energy Act was well ahead in the polls when it was first placed on the ballot.

But as we’ve seen with so many races over time (and as we saw with Proposition 8 this fall) when a ballot measure it becomes a citywide or statewide race, big money has a serious impact. And we’ve never seen this kind of money in a San Francisco initiative campaign. In the end, PG&E spent about $53 per vote. That’s an outrageous sum, dwarfing any political spending that’s ever happened in San Francisco

Yet despite the barrage, the Clean Energy Act got tremendous grassroots and political support. Clean Energy has a strong constituency in San Francisco, including from the Sierra Club, and the power of this campaign won’t go away. Despite the efforts of downtown and PG&E, progressives still control the Board of Supervisors. Three of the city’s four representatives in Sacramento — Senator-elect Mark Leno, Assembly Member Fiona Ma and Assembly Member-elect Tom Ammiano — supported the legislation and will continue to back efforts to replace PG&E’s dirty power with locally- owned renewable energy. PG&E has money but it’s running out of friends in this town — and its illegal monopoly is the very definition of unsustainable.

There’s now an organized constituency for clean energy and public power, seasoned by this campaign and ready to continue the battle. That’s what needs to happen. There are numerous fronts: the city needs to be moving forward quickly with community choice aggregation, which offers the potential for cheaper, cleaner power. (The downside to CCA is that it doesn’t allow the city to make money; PG&E would still own the transmission lines, and thus make all the profits in the system.) Potentially, however, a CCA agency could begin moving toward creating local generation facilities and eventually toward building a local transmission system. A CCA also could directly access the city’s own Hetch Hetchy power and begin delivering it to local customers (once San Francisco can get out of the contracts requiring it to send too much of that power out of town).

The supervisors need a strong Local Agency Formation Commission to keep monitoring and pushing this, and the new board president needs to be sure LAFCO members are committed to and energized about renewable energy and public power.

Several supervisors — Sean Elsbernd, for example — told us they saw no reason for Prop. H to be on the ballot since so much of what it called for could be done by the board. Fine: Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, one of the authors of Prop. H, should immediately introduce legislation to do everything in Prop. H that doesn’t require a city charter change. Let’s see if Elsbernd and the mayor are really just PG&E call-up votes or if they’re willing to support an energy options feasibility study and strong renewable-energy mandates for the city.

And there are still legal options that the board should look at. City Attorney Dennis Herrera never wanted to go to court to enforce the Raker Act, the federal law requiring San Francisco to operate a public power system, but that’s an area the board can push. David Campos, the apparent supervisor-elect in District 9, is a lawyer who has worked in the city attorney’s office and sued PG&E, so this is an area where he can show leadership.

The bottom line is that this battle isn’t over.

There were other disappointments on what was generally a progressive ballot. Proposition V — the phony measure calling on the school board to reinstate JROTC — passed, narrowly. It was mostly a wedge issue to hurt progressive candidates for supervisor, and has been a horribly divisive issue in the schools. The school board, which cut off JROTC last year, is now pushing for an excellent public service alternative and doesn’t need to go back and reexamine the issue. JROTC is a terrible idea for San Francisco, and the newly elected board members shouldn’t even bring this up again.

Of course we were deeply unhappy about the passage of Prop. 8. The repeal of same-sex marriage was such a blow to San Francisco that it dampened a lot of the enthusiasm over the Obama victory. But that one’s not over, either; it has just begun. Statistics show that voters under 30 overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage — and if the campaign is run differently, and the message is positive, it’s likely that Prop. 8 can be overturned. Marriage equality advocates should think seriously about preparing now for a major campaign in November 2010 to restore equal rights for same-sex couples in California.