Plans for SF clean energy program still underway, despite political opposition

Pub date December 17, 2013
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionPolitics Blog

San Francisco’s longstanding effort to develop a municipal renewable energy program has been stymied by politics, but Sup. London Breed has taken up the cause of advancing aspects of the plan that haven’t been obstructed.

At a Dec. 13 meeting of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), a committee comprised of members of the Board of Supervisors that has been working to develop CleanPowerSF for years, Breed called for putting out a Request for Proposals to develop a concrete plan for building out local renewable energy infrastructure. LAFCo adopted the motion. 

With plans for solar panel arrays or wind power facilities that would generate hundreds of megawatts of electricity for the municipal energy program, the build-out is a key aspect of the plan that could lead to job creation and stable electricity rates in the long term.

“Part of what I think is important in developing a plan is to make sure that if there are people who oppose it, that we have answers,” Breed said. “And we have clear answers, so that we’re communicating what the real, true accurate message is: There is real possibility for local jobs.”

Earlier this year, members of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, a body composed of mayoral appointees, refused to approve a not-to-exceed rate, effectively obstructing any forward progress on the green municipal power program. But some advocates who are thinking long-term have merely taken the setback as an opportunity to put some time and energy into crafting a well thought out plan that serves the interests of job seekers and environmentalists alike, which would ulimately be politically difficult to oppose.

The rate approval was a necessary step toward inking a contract with Shell Energy North America, the contractor selected by the SFPUC to procure renewable energy on the open market until a build-out gets off the ground.

Just before the commissioners made their decision, opponents of the plan who are affiliated with Pacific Gas & Electric Company – the utility giant that stands to lose customers if CleanPowerSF goes forward – plastered San Francisco residences with flyers denouncing the program and Shell’s involvement. The mailers were paid for by IBEW 1245, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union that represents PG&E employees.

Breed reflected on that messaging as an unfortunate setback. “It created, I think, the challenges that we’re facing getting this program moving forward,” she said. “We need a clear communication strategy. We need a clear understanding of the build-out.”

Eric Brooks, a longtime advocate of CleanPowerSF who has attended hundreds of meetings to help shape the plan on behalf of his nonprofit, Our City, said he was pleased with the latest direction LAFCo talks had taken. He recently penned an editorial for the Bay Guardian calling on LAFCo to take control of the program.

“This does not get around the political problem we have,” he said. “Politically, the program isn’t moving forward. On Aug. 13, from [the SFPUC’s] standpoint, they put the program on hold.” Nevertheless, “the idea is to work on all the other things, and get those things done.” Once there is a practical plan spelling out how the city will move forward with building out green renewable energy infrastructure, he said, it could serve to “show the building trade unions what’s possible.”

From what Brooks said and what was voiced at the meeting, it seems the political strategy of project proponents will be to bring on a consultant to hash out more tangible goals with regard to job creation, and then use those shovel-ready plans to bring trade unions on board. From there, Brooks hopes there may be more leverage to push for approval – or perhaps to pursue an alternative management structure that gets around the SFPUC, such as joining with another municipality to form a Joint Powers Authority that would oversee the program.

Sup. David Campos, who has been a key supporter of CleanPowerSF along with Sup. John Avalos, did voice some reservations about moving forward with the RFP. “We are here,” halted from moving forward, “even though we have a program that has been approved by the Board of Supervisors,” he pointed out. “How do we avoid going down the path of doing additional work, only to find ourselves in the same predicament?”

The political pressure against CleanPowerSF, fueled by groups associated with PG&E in political alignment with Mayor Ed Lee, is formidable. Nevertheless, advocates from environmental organizations such as, the Sierra Club and others have kept pushing for the program out of a conviction that it represents an opportunity to curb greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change at the local level.

“This is a very important move,” said June Brashares, a steering committee member of the Local Clean Energy Alliance. “A key piece of work that has not yet been done is the selection of actual sites all over the city for the installation of hundreds of megawatts of local clean energy projects that will make up CleanPowerSF.”

UPDATE: After we posted this, Breed returned a phone call from earlier in the day. She shared some thoughts about the program:

“I just think we’re overdue, to do it. The fact that we have five commissioners appointed, not necessarily elected, [blocking the program] disturbs me,” she said.

Asked why she’s supportive of CleanPowerSF, Breed said, “It’s not just about the choice. It’s also about the environment, and the future. There’s a lot of money in energy in general, and part of that money should go back to the local economy through those jobs.”

When we asked her about the strategy for advancing the program, she responded, “We want labor to be a partner on this. We want to make sure that it’s clear, and more importantly, we want it to be a strong proposal … My goal is to make it difficult for them to oppose it.”

Finally, questioned on whether she was worried about the political opposition, Breed responded, “I can’t do my job in fear that someone may oppose it. I have to do it based on what I think is truly right for the city of San Francisco.”