Approve clean power SF

Pub date September 4, 2012

EDITORIAL The clean energy plan for San Francisco isn’t perfect. It’s going to cost residents a bit extra to join a sustainable, city-run electricity system. Officials at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission figure that only about 100,000 residential customers will pay the premium to buy renewable energy — fewer if Pacific Gas and Electric Company launches a huge marketing effort to drive potential customers away. And PG&E will still control the distribution lines, the billing, the meters — and will make most of the profit.

It is, in other words, a long way short of a city-owned public-power system.

But it’s an important step in that direction, and the supervisors should approve the plan.

San Francisco has been talking about community choice aggregation for almost a decade, since the state approved legislation allowing cities and counties to form the equivalent of co-ops to buy electric power. The idea is that the city can purchase power in bulk — either at low rates or with a cleaner generation portfolio — and resell it to local customers. CCA programs don’t displace private utilities, which still own the power lines and charge a fee to deliver the electricity to customers.

But they do offer consumers choice: Right now, PG&E can’t even meet the weak, limited state standards for renewable energy, so San Franciscans are buying power from fossil-fuel and nuclear plants. Clean Power SF, as the city program is called, would offer as much as 100 percent renewable electricity — purchased through Shell Energy — at what at first will be a higher price.

But the goal of the program — and after years of wrangling, the SFPUC is now entirely on board with it — is to use the revenue stream from the early stages of electricity sales to build local renewable-energy facilities that can be brought on line to replace the power from Shell. Eventually, although it may be a decade or more down the road, San Francisco can probably generate enough power from solar, wind, and its existing hydroelectric dam to meet around 40 percent of the total power needs. If part of the program involves aggressive demand reduction, that number could go higher.

The locally produced energy would be cheap and green — and would bring down the price of the city alternative. If the city can build, operate, and make money from renewable energy plants, it will also demonstrate that running a municipal utility is entirely feasible. And the initial work of creating a full public power system will be in place.

It’s a modest experiment. Anyone who doesn’t want to pay extra for green power can opt out, and the city won’t even be trying to take on major commercial customers yet. But as the price of renewables comes down, and San Francisco commences its own build-out, it’s almost certain that Clean Power SF will be offering not only cleaner power but better rates.

For all its flaws, this is a program that community activists and city officials have spent years working out — and both sides are, for once, happy it. It needs strong support at the board, to send a message to the mayor that this is something San Franciscans want.