A flawed energy bill

Pub date December 23, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Two months after Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spent $10 million to defeat a clean energy measure on the San Francisco ballot, Sup. Sophie Maxwell has stepped into the battle, introducing a mild ordinance that lifts some of the language from the Clean Energy Act but would accomplish very little. We’re glad to see Maxwell stepping up her efforts to close the dirty Mirant Power Plant in Potrero Hill, but her legislation needs some significant amendments.

Maxwell’s ordinance, cosponsored by Sup. Aaron Peskin (who is one meeting away from being termed out), would make it city policy to "take all feasible steps" to close the Potrero plant. That’s a laudable goal. It also borrows the aggressive environmental goals from the Clean Energy Act, stating that the city needs to meet all its energy needs by 2040 with renewable power. But unlike the Clean Energy Act, Maxwell’s mandate ignores PG&E, which supplies the vast majority of the electricity in San Francisco and which can’t even meet the state’s weak alternative energy standards. Her requirement would apply only to the city’s own power supplies, which come mostly from the Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric project and thus already meet the 2040 standards. So the part of the bill that deals with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions is utterly useless.

The measure calls on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to study the ways the city can meet its energy goals without the Potrero plant — again, a fine idea. But it ducks the central question: who’s going to control the local electric grid, and thus the city’s energy future? Will PG&E continue to call the shots (in which case San Francisco will never meet credible green-power goals)? Or will the city take control of the distribution system, which would allow lower electric rates and far higher environmental standards?

As Amanda Witherell reports on page 17, Maxwell’s aide, Jon Lau, said the ordinance is "sort of agnostic toward public power." That’s a mistake — leaving public power out of the equation amounts to a capitulation to PG&E and a guarantee that nothing substantial will change in the city’s energy portfolio.

Maxwell wants to close the Potrero plant as quickly as possible, and so do we. The best way to do that is to block the plant’s water permit when it comes up next year (see "Water board can close Mirant," 11/25/08), and Maxwell and City Attorney Dennis Herrera are moving on that front. But the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), which controls the state’s grid, has in the past argued that the city needs a certain amount of generating capacity within its borders, and could force the Potrero plant to keep running.

Maxwell originally supported a plan to replace the in-city generation capacity by installing city-owned combustion turbines that would run only during periods of peak demand. But that plan failed after both environmentalists and PG&E opposed it. Now she’s pressing an alternative that would use new transmission cables, one owned by PG&E, to eliminate the need for power plants in the city.

That might work — but it would still leave the city in PG&E’s clutches, and while it would eliminate a source of pollution in southeast San Francisco, the city would still be using dirty power from PG&E’s nuclear and fossil-fuel plants elsewhere.

The best long-term solution is to build city-owned renewable generation to replace Mirant. The city’s community choice aggregation plan is moving in that direction. But ultimately, San Francisco will only reach aggressive clean energy goals if it controls its own fate.

Maxwell’s ordinance should be amended to clearly mandate a study that examines the feasibility of a public power system in San Francisco. If that’s not in the final version, the bill should be voted down.