Gavin Newsom’s Earth Day

Pub date April 14, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Here’s a snapshot of the state of green San Francisco, as we approach Earth Day 2009:

San Francisco ought to be getting $18 million a year for energy-efficiency programs, but the money instead goes to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which is wasting half of it.

Mayor Gavin Newsom went to Washington, D.C. to participate in a Newsweek panel on the environment and called for a transformation of the American automotive industry just a few days after the city’s transportation agency decided to cut $56 million out of Muni, increase transit fares by $30 million — and hike fees for car parking by just $11 million.

The city stands to get millions in federal stimulus money for green jobs — but nobody knows how many jobs the money will create, where they will come from, or who will get them.

This doesn’t seem the best way for one of the most liberal cities in America to respond to the environmental and economic crisis.

As Rebecca Bowe reports on page 10, PG&E is managing part of a multibillion dollar program aimed at cutting electricity demand. It’s a laudable goal — in fact, the cheapest way to reduce the use of fossil fuels and dirty power is to use less in the first place.

But the private utilities are a bad fit for any program that seeks to cut demand. Every year PG&E tells Wall Street how it expects to grow — and since the company’s product is electricity and natural gas, that means PG&E has no incentive at all to shrink its market. Not surprisingly, the giant utility has done a crappy job of running the program, failing to meet even its modest goals.

But state law allows cities to apply to run the local programs themselves — and data from across California show that public sector, non-utility programs do a far better job of lowering electricity use. So why isn’t San Francisco applying for that money? Because the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission thinks it’s "premature."

That’s crazy — the money could create local green jobs, reduce energy demand, and cut PG&E waste. It’s an obvious choice, and the supervisors should pass a resolution directing the PUC to take on this program.

The supervisors no longer have control over Muni fare hikes, but when they examine the city budget, they should take a hard look at what Newsom’s transit planners are doing. Cutting bus service during a recession, when low-cost transportation is needed more than ever, is generally a bad idea. So is raising Muni fares. Why are the car drivers, who are generally richer (and many of whom are commuters from wealthier suburbs) getting off so cheap?

The supervisors also need to be monitoring closely the federal stimulus money and the creation of green jobs. The single most important thing San Francisco can be doing right now is creating jobs in the green economy. In fact, there ought to be a city loan fund just for local green-collar startups. Instead, while Newsom is prancing around the country running for governor, his staff seems flummoxed by the whole process. The city needs a goal — say, 5,000 new green-collar jobs for unemployed San Franciscans in the next five years — a plan to create them, and a program to use the available federal money.

Newsom seems to have plenty of ideas for Detroit. We’d love to see him start to focus on San Francisco. *