Clean Power

Vote “no” on everything


All this year’s candidates are unopposed incumbents, which is lame. It’s a sign of an unhealthy democracy that we don’t even have a choice. Why isn’t anyone running? The citywide races on this ballot have no term limits and no public financing, so we’re stuck with career politicians until they decide to move on. Even if they’re okay at their jobs, that’s problematic.

We aren’t necessarily opposed to Treasurer Jose Cisneros or City Attorney Dennis Herrera. They each have admirable accomplishments on their résumés, but they aren’t the type of pioneering progressive leaders that we’re comfortable endorsing in uncontested elections — and Herrera has a couple ugly marks on his record (gang injunctions and invalidating a people’s referendum on Bayview/Hunters Point development).

We are, however, strongly opposed to the Guardian’s endorsements of Carmen Chu and Katy Tang. Back in the day, they worked together in Mayor Gavin Newsom’s budget office. Then he appointed Chu as District 4 supervisor and Tang became her legislative aide. Then Mayor Ed Lee appointed Chu as Assessor and it was Tang’s turn to be District 4 supervisor.

Are you sensing a trend? If Tang goes on to serve two full terms, the Sunset will go from 2007 until 2022 without a contested election. That’s crazy pants!

Odds are that will also mean 15 years without the District 4 supe ever disagreeing with the mayor. Chu was on the opposite side of virtually every contested vote The League has ever cared about: free Muni for youth, the Sit-Lie law, increasing the hotel tax, Election Day voter registration, and CleanPowerSF.

Tang hasn’t been around long, but she’s already voted against CleanPowerSF and carried the mayor’s water by trying to weaken John Avalos’s Due Process for All ordinance. She attempted to insert exceptions that would’ve made undocumented San Franciscans unsure if they could call the police without risking family members’ deportation. When she used the fearmongering image of the city becoming a “safe haven for criminals,” she was rightfully booed by hundreds of immigration and domestic violence advocates in the audience.

And then there’s the golden rule of politics: Follow the money! Chu and Tang have racked up over $150,000 each. Huge chunks of that money come from developers, property managers, consultants, and others looking to strike it rich with land use deals approved by the new board.

That’s especially troubling for Assessor-Recorder Chu. She’s responsible for assessing property taxes, most of which come from skyscrapers downtown. She should be all up in the business of those corporations: Every time a building changes hands or a company’s ownership changes, the company owes a real estate transfer tax. But Chu is buddy-buddy with the Building Owners and Managers Association, taking piles of cash from the real estate industry. That sucks.

This business of the mayor appointing his buddies who then go on to win uncontested races has got to stop. It’s troubling that the mayor — our executive branch — unilaterally fills out our legislative branch. Hello? Did the folks writing our City Charter ever hear of “checks and balances?”

We think all mayoral appointees should be placeholders, legally prohibited from running in the following election. None of this pledging not to run and then “changing your mind” (we’re looking at you, Ed Lee). That reform would be a proposition we could say yes to — and a welcome change of pace from this November’s ballot.

The San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters is an all-volunteer local chapter of the National League of Young Voters.

Mayor Lee supports PG&E’s monopoly


After watching Mayor Ed Lee and his appointees subvert the launch of CleanPowerSF and support PG&E’s illegal monopoly control of local energy users — and PG&E’s regular attempts to greenwash its dirty power portfolio — artist Michael Ortlieb developed and submitted this editorial cartoon. Enjoy. 

LAFCo should launch CleanPowerSF


OPINION Last month, the Mayor’s Office and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) — largely at the mayor’s behest — refused to launch CleanPowerSF, a program which is absolutely crucial to leading the country and the world to reverse the climate crisis (see “Power struggle,” Sept. 18).

The Board of Supervisors must now use its state-granted authority to activate San Francisco’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to launch CleanPowerSF, regardless of SFPUC.

CleanPowerSF plans currently waiting to be implemented would create 1,500 jobs a year for the next 10 years, and install over 400 megawatts of local clean electricity projects. By 2024, 50 percent of our electricity would be generated by such local clean installations.

The newest proposed rates for CleanPowerSF are now fully competitive with PG&E, and the SFPUC’s staff (before the mayor intervened) was making unprecedented progress on the local clean energy installation plans. So at the SFPUC’s Aug. 13 hearing on CleanPowerSF rate-setting, community and environmental advocates stood unanimously to urge that the program be launched.

For the mayor and SFPUC of what is supposed to be one of the most environmental cities on Earth to completely ignore those community advocates, and throw a monkey wrench into the launching of CleanPowerSF, is simply beyond the pale.

Thankfully, in its wisdom, when the 2002 California Legislature passed the Community Choice law that made CleanPowerSF possible, it put city councils and county boards legally in charge of such programs (not mayors).

So is not up to the Mayor’s Office whether or not CleanPowerSF is launched. It is instead the job of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. And in a resounding 9-2 vote on Sept. 17, the Board of Supervisors raked the SFPUC (and by extension, the mayor) over the coals for not initiating CleanPowerSF. The vote was in favor of Sup. London Breed’s resolution demanding that the SFPUC obey the will of the board and launch CleanPowerSF immediately.

That’s a great first step, but the board now needs to go beyond resolutions and take decisive action through LAFCo, its most powerful tool for moving CleanPowerSF. LAFCo is independent of city government, is funded and tasked to oversee new enterprise programs like CleanPowerSF, and four of its five members are elected supervisors.


This independent supermajority can check mayoral overreach, and the LAFCo’s current board commissioners are John Avalos, David Campos, Eric Mar, and London Breed, all advocates of CleanPowerSF.

LAFCo was specifically given the budget and authority to act on CleanPowerSF when SFPUC fails to do so, and has already done this successfully in the past. When CleanPowerSF was first created in 2004, SFPUC refused to draft an implementation plan. In response, LAFCo stepped in with its own implementation plan and SFPUC, not wanting to lose influence, got back to work.

In 2011, SFPUC tried to sidetrack CleanPowerSF into only purchasing (but not building) clean power, refusing to fund planning work to establish a local installation and green jobs program. LAFCO stepped in to fund that work itself, and again SFPUC came back to the fold and hired Community Choice experts Local Power to do the work.

Now, yet again, SFPUC is refusing to do its job. Six months ago, it abruptly halted work on the local buildout and green jobs plan, and last month SFPUC put the whole program on hold by not setting rates.

LAFCo must now use its authority and leverage to both remove the rate-setting road block, and get the CleanPowerSF local buildout planning back on track. Eric Brooks is the sustainability chair of the San Francisco Green Party.

Is Art Torres helping PG&E, helping his son’s political career, or both?


As I’ve been reporting on how CleanPowerSF is being blocked by Mayor Ed Lee and his political appointees on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, one piece of the puzzle that I couldn’t quite figure out was why SFPUC President Art Torres took the position he did, offering little public explanation for his stance.

“His opposition to the rate vote was strange because he didn’t give clear reasons,” Eric Brooks, who has been led the grassroots campaign in support of CleanPowerSF, told us. Torres also hasn’t returned Guardian calls on the issue, and he refused a formal request from Sup. John Avalos to explain his position.

As a former state senator and longtime former chair of the California Democratic Party, Torres certainly has connections to Pacific Gas & Electric and the array of politicians that support it, include Willie Brown. But that just didn’t seem like enough for a senior statesman with a decent environmental record to sabotage San Francisco’s only plan for building renewable energy projects.

But some of my political sources have clued me into another possible motive, and it seems to make sense. Art Torres’ son is Joaquin Torres, who works in the Mayor’s Office and who Lee in February appointed to the Housing Commission, where Torres now serves as president.

And here’s the kicker: those sources also say that Joaquin Torres has already started running for the District 9 seat on the Board of Supervisors, which is now held by Sup. David Campos, who is running for Tom Ammiano’s seat in the California Assembly. And if Campos wins that race next year, Mayor Lee will get to fill it, possibly naming Torres to one of the most progressive seats in the city.

So dad gets to score political points with some powerful friends, and help launch his son’s political career in the process. These motives are beginning to add up.

Joaquin Torres is now deputy director of the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development, “where he leads Mayor Lee’s Invest In Neighborhoods Initiative to leverage City resources across city departments to maximize positive economic and social impact in low-moderate income neighborhoods and throughout San Francisco’s commercial corridors,” the Mayor’s Office wrote in February when Torres got appointed to the Housing Commission.

Sounds like the perfect job for someone being groomed for the Board of Supervisors, where he could have a serious impact on this city’s political dynamic, tipping policies in the neoliberal to moderate direction of expanding corporate welfare programs and speeding up gentrification.

Neither Torres has returned our calls, but I’ll update this post when and if they do. And while this is clearly just political speculation and conjecture, I have a feeling that I’m onto something here. So remember where you read it first.  

Challenge Mayor Lee and his lies


EDITORIAL In the long history of San Francisco political corruption caused by Pacific Gas & Electric’s willingness to do and spend whatever it takes to hold onto the energy monopoly that it illegally obtained generations ago, in violation of the federal Raker Act, there have been countless ugly and shameful episodes, many of them chronicled in the pages of the Bay Guardian.

Mayor Ed Lee’s misleading Sept. 10 testimony to the Board of Supervisors, where he deliberately distorted CleanPowerSF and defended the dubious actions of his appointees to kill the program, ranks right up there with some of the worst episodes (see “Power struggle,” page 12). If there were any doubts about Lee’s lack of political integrity and independence, about his unwillingness stand up to his corporate benefactors on the behalf of the people he was elected to serve, this appalling performance should settle them.

It was bad enough when PG&E used money from San Francisco ratepayers to bury public power advocates under an avalanche of lies, fear-mongering, and the testimony of paid political allies every election when its monopoly was being challenged, making it virtually impossible to have an honest conversation about the city’s energy and environmental needs.

But now that advocates for consumer choice and renewable energy have spent more than a decade developing a program that doesn’t require a popular vote, is competitive with PG&E’s rates, would create city-owned green energy projects serving residents for generations to come, and which was approved by a veto-proof majority on the Board of Supervisors, Mayor Lee has stooped to new lows in a desperate and transparent ploy to stop it.

Once again, as he did during his rash decision to remove Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi from office before even investigating his most serious official misconduct allegations, Mayor Lee has blithely created what Sen. Mark Leno calls a “Charter crisis.” Then, it was over the question of when one elected official should remove another; now, it is whether a trio of mayoral appointees can usurp the authority of the elected Board of Supervisors, the top policymaking body under the City Charter.

Relying on tortured logic and Clinton-esque legalese backflips doesn’t justify the SFPUC commissioners refusal to do their jobs — and it would be deemed official misconduct by a less corrupt mayor. But this mayor sees his job as simply carrying water for the people who put him there, whether that be Willie Brown and his longtime client PG&E, or venture capital Ron Conway and the companies that Lee is heaping with unprecedented tax breaks (see “Corporate welfare boom,” page 14). Please, isn’t there someone out there willing to challenge this corruption and run for mayor? This city, and the future generations living in the warming world we’re creating, deserve better.

Power struggle


Jason Fried could barely believe what was coming out of the squawk box in his office at the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission on Sept. 10, as he listened to Mayor Ed Lee describe the CleanPowerSF program Fried had spent years helping to develop.

The program would give San Franciscans the choice of buying their electricity from clean, renewable energy sources rather than Pacific Gas & Electric’s oil, coal, hydro, and nuclear dominated power portfolio, a program that was finally able to become competitive with PG&E on price and still fund the creation of local clean energy projects.

But the program that Lee described — which three of his appointees on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission have recently decided to block, against the wishes of the Board of Supervisors supermajority that approved it (see “Fizzling energy,” Aug. 21) — sounded nothing like the program that Fried, LAFCo’s senior program officer, knows so well.

As Lee described it, CleanPowerSF is “based on vague promises” and has “questionable environmental benefits,” claiming it has “gotten progressively more expensive” and “creates no local jobs.”

“What the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission did was in the best interests of the city,” Lee said. The city has spent untold hours and dollars over the last decade developing and approving CleanPowerSF.

“It was very frustrating to watch, particularly when you see him just making stuff up,” said Fried. “If he wants to be against CCAs [Community Choice Aggregation, that state-created program the CleanPowerSF is a part of], fine, just say that…But he wasn’t even getting his numbers right.”



Questioned by the Guardian following his monthly mayoral policy discussion at the board, where all five questions from frustrated supervisors were about CleanPowerSF, Lee cast himself as sticking to the facts.

“I know that elements of this are somewhat complicated because you have to actually read a lot of volumes of materials to understand the choice aggregation program,” Lee said, claiming, “I’m taking it exactly from facts that were presented.”

But in reality, Lee was cherry-picking facts that were either out-of-date or presented in a misleading way, while ignoring inconvenient questions like how the city can still achieve its clean energy goals without it, or why his appointees are subverting broadly supported public policy on technical grounds that appear to exceed their authority.

Take Lee’s claim that the CleanPowerSF program approved by the board “was 95 percent renewable on day one,” which he used to support his argument that “when the final project is so vastly different than the original intent, the SFPUC has to intervene.”

Lee is referring to the “three buckets” from which the program will draw its energy, as defined by the California Public Utilities Commission. Bucket 1 is the gold standard: juice coming directly from certified renewable energy sources in California. Bucket 2 is renewable energy that isn’t reliable and must be “firmed and shaped” by other energy sources, such as wind or solar farms supplemented by fossil fuels when there’s little wind or sunshine. And Bucket 3 is Renewable Energy Credits, which support creation of renewable energy facilities or green power purchased from other states.

When the board approved the program in September 2012, the SFPUC called for it to secure 10 percent of the power from Bucket 1, 85 percent from Bucket 2, and 5 percent from Bucket 3, although these were just guidelines and the SFPUC was specifically authorized to change that mix.

Lee and other critics of the program decried the program’s cost of more than 14 cents per kilowatt-hour, while supporters worried the price would cause more customers to opt-out, so the SFPUC decided to allow more RECs, while also substantially increasing the amount of guaranteed green power.

“The difference between buckets two and three is not that big a difference,” Fried said, noting the Bucket 2 can actually include a substantial amount of dirty energy. “It really depends on how you’re firming and shaping.”

So the SFPUC increased the size of Bucket 1 to 25 percent and Bucket 3 to 75 percent, with idea being that RECs are only an interim step toward issuance of revenue-bonds to build renewable energy projects that would eventually fill Bucket 1 to overflowing. All for the not-to-exceed rate of 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour that the SFPUC is refusing to approve.

“Our entire mix would be 100 percent greenhouse-gas-free, but the mayor is ignoring that because it doesn’t fit his ‘green’ argument,” Fried said, also noting that it would be generated in-state by union workers. “PG&E can’t make that same claim.”

CPUC statistics show PG&E derives less than the state-mandated 20 percent of its energy from clean, renewable sources, and that the percentage of its portfolio that is greenhouse gas-free actually dropped in 2012, to 51 percent from 59 percent in 2011. And despite Lee’s emphasis on local jobs, PG&E’s three largest solar projects built in 2012 are outside California.

By contrast, CPSF contractor Shell Energy North America wrote in an Aug. 12 letter that in addition to setting aside $1.5 million for local buildout after its first year, which “should create local jobs,” it is now negotiating in-state wind and hydroelectric (“operated by union labor”) contracts to meet the program’s demands.

But at this point, supporters of the program are running out of options to get that contract approved.



CleanPowerSF has broad political support in San Francisco, from Sups. David Campos, John Avalos, and other progressives, to moderates including Sup. Scott Wiener and state Sen. Mark Leno, who authored legislation to protect nascent CCAs from PG&E meddling and has been a steadfast supporter of CleanPowerSF.

“There’s a constitutional crisis, or a [City] Charter crisis, of sorts,” Leno said, referring to the standoff. “The legislative body has been unequivocal in its desire to proceed and it’s not for this commission to interfere with that decision.”

Leno said PG&E and its allies have played strong behind-the-scenes roles in sabotaging this program. “They are definitely exerting their influence,” Leno said, “they have never stopped trying to derail this.” SFPUC Chair Art Torres, who is leading the obstruction, didn’t return a Guardian call for comment.

If there is a silver lining, Leno said it’s that “PG&E has had to present its own version of green energy. But the two can coexist. We want competition.”

So does Fried, LAFCo, and all of the supervisors who sit on that commission, which has long tried to break PG&E’s monopoly.

“It’s close to checkmate, but we’re trying to breathe new life into this,” Sup. John Avalos, who sits on LAFCo, told us. “Part of the politics can be seen in the mayor’s statements, which are full of misinformation.”

Sup. David Campos, also on LAFCo, told us CleanPowerSF is “a good program, and it’s consistent with what the Board of Supervisors approved. I think it’s a mistake for the city not to move on this and it’s a bad thing for consumers.”

The newest member of LAFCo, Sup. London Breed, authored a resolution supporting CPSF that the Board of Supervisors was set to consider on Sept. 17, after Guardian press time. It recites a history of strong support for the program by the Board of Supervisors, starting with a unanimous votes in 2004 and 2007 to launch the CCA and continuing through the supermajority approval of CleanPowerSF and a $20 million appropriation to launch it in September 2012.

It noted that the SFPUC held 18 meetings on the program between September 2012 and August 2013, and that its Rate Fairness Board determined that rates for the Phase 1 are “technically fair.”

The resolution emphasizes an important governance issue at stake: “Irrespective of the particular policy decision, the Board of Supervisors must protect and defend its authority to make policy decisions.”

Yet there’s been a concerted effort to undermine CleanPowerSF this summer, led by appointees and allies of Lee and PG&E.

At the Aug. 6 Commission on the Environment meeting, Commissioner Joshua Arce pushed Department of the Environment head Melanie Nutter to renounce CPSF as no longer a green power program, something she refused to do. Arce fell a vote short of approving a resolution characterizing the program as not meeting “all of the commission’s original goals” and urging the SFPUC “to work with the Department of the Environment to craft a program that is acceptable to the San Francisco Environment Commission.”

Breed said she was disappointed in Lee’s approach, although she takes him at his word when he says he’s open to alternatives.

“The questions were answered, but there wasn’t any closure in terms of what this means for the future,” Breed said. “If not this program, what’s the alternative?”

If the city is going to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals, which call for reducing 1990’s carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2017 and 40 percent by 2025, it’s going to have to offer some alternative.

“We need to be aggressive about moving in this direction,” Breed said, “and we need to make sure the public has an alternative to PG&E.”


Mayor Lee distorts reality in defending CleanPowerSF obstruction by his appointees


Mayor Ed Lee yesterday answered a series of five questions from the Board of Supervisors about CleanPowerSF, the renewable energy program it approved last year on a veto-proof 8-3 vote, but which three of Lee’s appointees on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission are now blocking.

Lee reaffirmed his opposition to the program and support for the three commissioners who are refusing to approve a maximum rate for the program, while making a series of statements that were misleading, contradictory, and, according to Sup. John Avalos, some outright falsehoods.

CleanPowerSF would group tens of thousands of city residents into a renewable energy buying pool, a system called Community Choice Aggregation authorized by state legislation, which would compete against Pacific Gas & Electric’s illegal local monopoly. Initally, the energy would be purchased under a contract with Shell Energy, but the main goal of the program is to build city-owned renewable energy facilities by issuing revenue bonds supported by the program’s ratepayers.

Yet the program Lee described has little resemblance to CleanPowerSF — and his statements of support for the concept belie his longstanding opposition to the program and support for PG&E, whose union is leading the campaign to kill CleanPowerSF.

“I know that many members of the Board of Supervisors are upset,” Lee began in his first answer to similar questions posed by Sups. Eric Mar, David Chiu, London Breed, David Campos, and John Avalos, who all represent the odd-numbered districts whose turn it was to submit questions to the mayor for this month’s appearance.

Lee then explained that one of the duties of  the SFPUC is to protect ratepayers, which he called “the overriding concern they have when faced with any issue,” adding that, “The commission ultimately decided that the rate wasn’t a fair rate.”

Ironically, the top rate that the commission is being asked to approve in order to finally launch CleanPowerSF was just 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, only slightly more than current PG&E rates and a substantial reduction from the rate that was discussed last year when supervisors approved the program.

PG&E, Lee, and other critics of the program had attacked its high cost, so SFPUC staffers tweaked the program to allow the initial use of Renewable Energy Credits, which support the creation of renewable energy projects, rather than being purely juice directly from solar, wind, and other renewable sources, which is more expensive.

So Lee criticized that change as a departure from what the board approved last year, telling the supervisors that the program should be at least “95 percent renewable on day one,” saying that, “This is what a green power program should look like.”

Yet when it did look like that, Lee opposed it, something he didn’t mention yesterday. And yet he still made the argument that the SFPUC was simply exercising its fiduciary responsibility in blocking a program that has gotten cheaper than when the board approved it.

“The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission did its job in protecting ratepayers,” Lee said. “I agree with the majority of the PUC.”

So, on one hand, Lee said that CleanPowerSF has “gotten progressively more expensive as time goes on,” citing statements made years ago about the goal of trying to meet-or-beat PG&E’s rates, which have been subsidized by taxpayers over the years.

And when the program then got close to matching those rates, he criticized the use of RECs to get there, saying the climate change benefits “need to be real and tangible and not based on vague promises.”

Yet even city-commissioned studies have shown that San Francisco won’t meet its own greenhouse gas reduction goals without substantially changing the energy portfolio of city residents, and CleanPowerSF is the only plan on the table to get there, except for PG&E’s vague promises to offer more renewable energy in the future.

While Lee touted city efforts to improve the energy efficiency of commercial buildings and the recent launch of a regional bike share program — neither of which will come close to meeting city climate change goals — even he acknowledged the “need to expand our in-city renewable energy generation,” citing the $4 million SolarSF as an example.

But Lee never made reference to CleanPowerSF’s plan to build up to $1 billion in renewable energy projects whose impacts would be far more impactful. Instead, he said the program “creates no local jobs,” which wouldn’t be true during the buildout phase.

While praising PG&E, Lee also glossed over the fact that a majority of supervisors still support CleanPowerSF, and that the SFPUC vote was supposed to be on the rate and not these ancillary issues, raising fundamental democratic issues when three mayoral appointees can override the decision of elected supervisors who represent all city residents.

“When a final project is so vastly different than the original intent, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has to intervene,” Lee said.

Avalos called many of Lee’s statements “lies,” so I followed Mayor Lee back to his office after the hearing and we had the following conversation as several reporters from other media outlets listened in:   

SFBG: Supervisor Avalos just said that you’ve made a number of statements that are not factually accurate, and certainly misleading, including saying that the program has changed substantially. Given that you opposed the program initially, and you seem to make statements that criticize those changes, and clearly the majority still supports it, how can you make the argument that the PUC is acting against it because the program has changed?

Mayor Lee: Well, you know, I know that elements of this are somewhat complicated cause you have to actually read a lot of volumes of materials to understand the choice aggregation program, cause it has those three aspects and I would….

SFBG: As guidelines, not as rates….

Mayor Lee: I would point to those numbers that were discussed at the board and presented to the [SF] Public Utilities Commission, because that’s what I’m quoting from. I’m taking it, not from even verbiage, I’m taking it exactly from facts that were presented at the commission at the Board of Supervisors and I specifically lifted quotes from the board about their comments about local jobs and all the other things, so, I don’t think I’m inaccurate at all. I think I’m actually quite on point.

SFBG: But the rates have come down from when they approved it and you made it sound like the rates have gone up.

Mayor Lee: The rates were up and they came down in trade off with less green.

SFBG: Right…

Mayor Lee: That’s about the point I was trying to make is that we wanted these other goals to happen and they couldn’t happen cause people were trading off things in order to set the rates and that was going to become a bigger and bigger gap as to what the original goals were. That’s the way…

SFBG: But the board clearly wants this program. Why, as a matter of policy, as a matter of city procedure, why isn’t the elected body the one to make this decision, instead of your appointees?

Mayor Lee: Well, I think that’s the whole reason why they presented it to the Public Utilities Commission. They’re charter mandated to set these rates. It’s not just an automatic acceptance of what the board says. They also independently review what the board has said. And in their independent review, they said they had gone well beyond what they stated their goals were and so they couldn’t set the rates and still honor all the goals that the board was suggesting.

SFBG: But those rates are less than what the Board has approved. How can they be exercising fiscal oversight… I mean, it doesn’t make any sense.

Mayor Lee: I think we have a big disagreement there. They’re mandated by the charter to set those rates responsibly, not just to follow what the board has stated and so, in their independent review, they went and reviewed all the goals that the board has said and said ‘This is not the program that they have stated should be fulfilled.’

SFBG: Even though the majority of the Board of Supervisors disagree with that statement that you just made?

Mayor Lee: Well, you know, then again, are we not respecting peoples’ right to disagree over what is being done here?

SFBG: But your argument that the program changed from what they approved, a  majority is saying ‘that’s not true,’ that you’re misrepresenting that.

Mayor Lee: No, I don’t think that I’m misrepresenting that. I disagree with that.

SFBG: A majority of the Board of Supervisors who approved it says you are.

Mayor: Well, I disagree with that assessment.




Supervisors to grill Mayor Lee over CleanPowerSF sabotage


Mayor Ed Lee will be on the hot seat for his unqualified support of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and his related opposition to the CleanPowerSF renewable energy program, which his appointees to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission are trying to sabotage, when he shows up for the monthly mayoral question time at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

Hopefully the boring, scripted question time format that Lee created in collaboration with Board President David Chiu will finally give way to what the voters intended when they required the mayor to engage with the legislative branch: an actual, substantive, back-and-forth policy discussion meant to illuminate issues of public concern.

Because that’s what’s needed on this important issue. After more than a decade in the making, the board last year cast a historic vote to create the project on a veto-proof 8-3 vote. But the SFPUC is now refusing to set the maximum rate for the program, which should be a fairly technical and pro forma action, instead raising unrelated issues that the supervisors have already considered. In other words, unelected mayoral appointees have decided to veto a hard-won democratic gain, creating something akin to a constitutional crisis in a city that values public process and input. 

So for the first time ever, all the of the supervisors scheduled to ask questions (it rotates because odd- and even-numbered districts each month) have focused various aspects of a single important issue. Even though Lee has mastered the politicians’ dark art of speaking without saying anything, this one should still be a doozy as supervisors ask the following questions:

1. Mayor Lee – As you know, San Francisco has set ambitious goals to combat climate change. In many ways, the City is making great strides in this direction, from increasing bicycling, to pursuing zero waste goals, to hiring a new, excellent environmental policy advisor in Rodger Kim who has a strong background in environmental justice and community engagement. However, the Public Utilities Commission has repeatedly failed to set rates for CleanPowerSF, the most impactful local proposal yet designed to curb carbon emission. This program was adopted by the Board of Supervisors, the legislative body of the City. However, there are some allegations that your office is stalling its implementation. What specifically are you doing, as the City’s head executive, to implement this policy in a timely fashion? (Supervisor Mar, District 1)

2. Mr. Mayor, can you please outline your objections to the CleanPowerSF program as approved last year on an vote 8-3 by the Board of Supervisors? (Supervisor Chiu, District 3)

3. Recognizing the constraints imposed by state law, particularly with respect to opt-out provisions, how would a clean power program need to be structured in order for you to support it? Are you willing to work with the Board of Supervisors, and have your staff and commissioners work with the Board of Supervisors, to revise CleanPowerSF so that you can support it? Can we come to the table and make clean power a reality without any further delay? (Supervisor Breed, District 5)

4. The Board of Supervisors has been very supportive of CleanPowerSF. Do you think it is appropriate for a City Commission to go against the policy the Board of Supervisors set when it approved CleanPowerSF? (Supervisor Campos, District 9)

5. Days after the one-year anniversary of the 2010 PG&E San Bruno pipeline explosion, you called PG&E a “great local corporation” and a “great company that gets it.” However, the examples of PG&E’s immoral, illegal, and greedy behavior are legion:

– PG&E avoided admitting fault in the San Bruno explosion, failed to cooperate with the investigation, fought against paying a fair fine, and hopes to make ratepayers pay for the fine.

– PG&E’s current electric mix is only 20% California-certified renewable.

– Outages of PG&E-owned streetlights have increased over 400% in recent years, and PG&E wants to increase by $600,000 a year the amount it charges the City for streetlight maintenance without committing to improved service.

– Despite the fact that PG&E already has some of the highest electric rates in the country, PG&E is seeking to further increase rates in each of the next three years.

– While PG&E has proposed a new Green Tariff program, it remains only a vague proposal and there is no guarantee that it will ever be implemented.

– PG&E’s previous green campaigns-such as ClimateSmart and “Let’s Green This City”-have proven to be short lived and ineffective public relations stunts. Multiple public surveys conducted by the PUC to gauge the level of support for CleanPowerSF have all found that a substantial number of San Franciscans want the opportunity to pay a slight premium for a 100% renewable alternative to PG&E.

Why does your office continue to oppose providing City ratepayers with an alternative to PG&E’s monopoly by implementing CleanPowerSF? (Supervisor Avalos, District 11) 

Fizzling energy


A plan for a municipal power program that would offer 100 percent green energy to San Francisco customers was stalled on Aug. 13, prompting Sup. John Avalos to explore what legal options might be available to bring the program to fruition without further delay.

Prior to that San Francisco Public Utilities Commission hearing, supporters of CleanPowerSF rallied on the steps of City Hall, urging Mayor Ed Lee and members of the commission to approve a not-to-exceed rate, a technical hurdle that must be cleared before the program can advance. SFPUC staff cannot formalize a contract for purchasing power on the open market until that maximum rate has been formally established, so as long as it goes unapproved, CleanPowerSF lingers in limbo.

“We call on the Mayor’s Office to stop impeding progress with heavy-handed politics,” said Shawn Marshall, executive director of Local Energy Aggregation Network (LEAN) — a group that assists with clean-energy municipal power programs. “And we ask the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to stay focused on its job of implementing a program that was approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last September. That’s almost a year ago, folks.”

But after more than two hours of public comment in which dozens of advocates voiced support for moving ahead with the program, SFPUC commissioners voted down a motion to approve the rate, leaving CleanPowerSF in limbo with no clear path forward.



Commissioners Francesca Vietor and Anson Moran were the only ones on the commission to favor the rate approval, while Ann Moller Caen, Vince Courtney, and President Art Torres shot it down.

“I feel like today is a historic moment for the SFPUC as well as the city of San Francisco,” Vietor said as she introduced the motion at the beginning of the meeting, “to become a leader in combating climate change.”

Rather than focus on the question of whether or not to establish a top rate of 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (a reduced price from an earlier proposal that sparked an outcry from critics because of the sticker shock), Torres and Caen criticized CleanPowerSF before casting “no” votes.

Caen said she’d “always had problems with the opt-out situation,” referring to a system that will automatically enroll utility customers into the program, while Torres criticized the project for changing shape since its inception, saying, “at the end of the day, this is not what San Franciscans had anticipated.”

But after straying well beyond the scope of a discussion about the not-to-exceed rate, commissioners who shot down CleanPowerSF didn’t provide SFPUC staff with any hints on how to allay their concerns. Some might interpret the hearing outcome as a death knell for CleanPowerSF, but Avalos has taken up the cause of pushing for implementation.

Unable to attend the hearing in person, Avalos sent legislative aide Jeremy Pollock to convey his concerns. “We all understand the politics of the situation,” his statement noted. “The Board of Supervisors and every major environmental group in the City support this program. The Mayor, PG&E, and its union oppose it. I know you are feeling a lot of pressure from both sides. But we cannot afford further political gamesmanship to cause additional delays in an attempt to kill this program.”

The effort to implement CleanPowerSF is mired in politics. For Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Northern California’s largest utility, the enterprise represents an encroachment into prime service territory and a threat to the power company’s monopoly.

PG&E has long been highly influential at San Francisco City Hall. It has funded many political campaigns and curried favor with powerful figures (former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, known to be a frequent dining companion of the mayor, has been richly rewarded for his consulting services, for instance). Mayor Ed Lee opposes the program, and holds the authority to appoint commissioners to the SFPUC.



The City Charter gives the SFPUC the responsibility of establishing fair and sufficient rates for the city’s utility operations. But Avalos charged that “any further delay will essentially show that we are in a constitutional crisis caused by a city department failing to carry out a policy approved by a veto-proof supermajority of the Board of Supervisors.”

The supervisor added that if the rate failed to win approval at the hearing, he would call upon the City Attorney to explore legal options “to resolve this type of stalemate—including the possibility of drafting a Charter Amendment. CleanPowerSF is too important and the threat of climate change is too significant to allow this program to die on the vine. It is time for leadership.”

Pollock said on Aug. 15 that Avalos was still awaiting a response from City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office.

Meanwhile, activists who’ve attended countless meetings with SFPUC staff to move the program forward expressed frustration in the aftermath of the vote. “Things are in this holding pattern, and the dissenting commissioners did not provide a way forward,” noted Jed Holtzman, an advocate with climate group 350 Bay Area. “They just kind of said, ‘no.'”

The weekend before the hearing, mailers paid for by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, a union representing PG&E employees, blanketed Noe Valley residences with fliers. Depicting seashells besmirched with oil, the mailers seized on the involvement of Shell Energy North America, an oil giant with a contract pending with the SFPUC to administer power purchases for the first four and a half years of the program.

Shell’s involvement presents something of a challenge for advocates, who have long advocated for a program that would be run entirely by the SFPUC with a centerpiece of renewable power generation facilities that could double as a source of local job creation.

The initial program phase looked quite different: Shell would purchase green power on the open market, making CleanPowerSF significantly more expensive than PG&E. To address that concern and lower rates, SFPUC staff recently allowed the use of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), more affordable units accounting for green power produced somewhere in California as opposed to electricity coming straight over the power lines.

Despite the drawbacks of a more watered down start to the program and the involvement of a notorious fossil fuel company, progressives and major environmental organizations strongly advocated for moving forward with the Shell contract to give the SFPUC a shot at positioning itself financially to float revenue bonds for build-outs of a local green energy infrastructure.

“The plan is to completely replace this with the build-out,” noted John Rizzo, who sits on the executive committee of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club.



A 134-page report prepared by Local Power Inc. described in careful detail how the city could use wind, solar, geothermal, energy efficiency, and other measures for a viable program. While SFPUC representatives have indicated that some of those recommendations will still be implemented, the agency is no longer working with Local Power.

“Our draft model was 1,500 jobs per year,” Paul Fenn, founder and president of Local Power, wrote in an email to the Guardian. “But earlier runs show as many as twice that many jobs, and we projected the higher end for the final model.” In the end, though, “SFPUC declined to continue with completion of this work, so we are in limbo — apparently an organization without allies,” Fenn added. Asked about this, Kim Malcom, the SFPUC’s director of CleanPowerSF, told the Guardian that Fenn’s analysis was based on the assumption that the agency would issue bonds totaling $1 billion. “We have no confidence that we could issue a billion dollars worth of bonds in the first few years of the program,” she said, noting that the highest the agency expected to go was closer to $200 million. And at this point, it remains to be seen whether CleanPowerSF will move ahead at all. “One of the difficulties we face is that we can’t move forward without a rate,” SFPUC spokesperson Charles Sheehan noted. “In terms of launching and implementing, we can’t do that until we have a rate structure,” and now that the utility board has blocked that from happening, there is no clear path forward. Still, activists who are serious about CleanPowerSF believe it’s key for positioning San Francisco as a leader in the fight against climate change. “CleanPowerSF is a crucial step for achieving California’s 2020 greenhouse gas goals,” Bill Reilly, chairman emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund and a former EPA administrator, wrote in a letter to Lee. “It’s also an essential model &ldots; as cities and communities are compelled to address the problems fueled by climate change.”

Protect local power and control


EDITORIAL There’s a growing stench of political corruption — or, at the very least, hidden agendas aimed at subverting popular will in favor of entrenched corporate interests — emanating from the Mayor’s Office these days. And it’s undermining projects and institutions that are vital to the future of San Francisco.

In the last week, a pair of important developments illuminated the shady way business gets done in San Francisco. The first instance concerned City College of San Francisco, which had its accreditation rashly revoked last month, prompting Mayor Ed Lee to enthusiastically support the disbanding of the locally elected Board of Trustees and the takeover of City College by state-appointed outsiders bent on shutting down community-based facilities and classes.

While Lee and the San Francisco Chronicle have been cheerleading this loss of local control and the corporatist agenda behind it — CCSF was criticized for resisting the narrowing of its mission to focus on job training and college prep — we at the Guardian have questioned this process and the motives behind it.

In a cover story (“Who killed City College?” July 9), editorial (“Why democracy matters,” July 23), and other coverage, we’ve highlighted how the attack on CCSF is part of national movement to focus schools on job training rather than broad-based education, and questioned the haste with which CCSF’s local leadership was usurped.

Critics mocked these concerns, as they did those of the California Federation of Teachers, which formally challenged the actions by the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges, with Lee and others saying that we need to just accept the death threats against CCSF and do whatever these outsiders are asking.

So on Aug. 13, when the US Department of Education sustained the CFT appeal and found the ACCJC in violation of federal regulations and its own internal standards in its approach to City College, it validated our concerns and called into question Lee’s hair-trigger abandonment of City College’s local leaders.

Frankly, we’re puzzled by Lee’s approach to City College — from his appointment of right-wing ideologue Rodrigo Santos as a trustee last year (who subsequently got trounced in the election) to his resistance to helping the college before the state takeover — but we suspect it’s connected to Lee’s focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs” to the exclusion of other issues and values.

But Lee only counts private sector jobs, not those created to serve the public interest like the thousands of jobs that would be created by CleanPowerSF, a program that Lee opposes and that his appointees to the SF Public Utilities Commission are actively subverting.

As we report in this issue, CleanPowerSF is a renewable energy program approved last year by a veto-proof majority on the Board of Supervisors, but it’s being blocked by the SFPUC’s refusal to approve the rates and sign the contracts, with commissioners raising concerns that go well beyond their purview at this point.

It’s time for Mayor Lee to start serving the people of San Francisco instead of the corporate titans and political benefactors who elevated this loyal career bureaucrat into the big chair in Room 200.


Backward on climate

After a hearing lasting several hours on Tue/13, members of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission voted down a motion to approve electricity rates for CleanPowerSF, a municipal energy program designed to offer a 100 percent green energy mix to San Francisco customers.

The approval of that “not-to-exceed” rate, set at 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, would have cleared the path to set CleanPowerSF in motion after almost a decade of politically charged debates and setbacks.

“I feel like today is a historic moment for the SFPUC as well as the city of San Francisco,” commissioner Francesca Vietor said as she introduced her motion to approve the rate. “Even though I understand this is only a vote to approve the not-to-exceed rate,” she added, it was a critical first step toward a long-term vision in which “we will also be able to create a new generation of green collar workers and build our own renewable power system.”

In the end, Vietor and Commissioner Anson Moran were the only ones to favor the rate approval, while Ann Moller Caen, Vince Courtney and President Art Torres shot it down. So once again, CleanPowerSF has been kicked back in limbo.

“This is not just about rates today,” Torres said. “If we approve these rates, that would authorize the General Manager [of the SFPUC] to authorize a contract with Shell.”  

Oil giant Shell Energy North America was tapped by the SFPUC to purchase green energy on the open market during the first phase of the program. Although Shell is a fossil fuel company with a disgraceful human rights track record, progressives and environmentalists stand behind a speedy approval of that contract, because they say it is a crucial first step toward realizing the ultimate project vision of constructing city-owned and operated renewable energy facilities while creating local green jobs.

“The deal is that you cannot do that until you move forward, and launch the program,” said Shawn Marshall, executive director of LEAN – a group that assists with clean-energy municipal power programs – speaking at a rally just before the hearing. “You have to live to go local. We call on the mayor’s office to stop impeding progress with heavy-handed politics and we ask the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to stay focused on its job of implementing a program that was approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last September.”

Rather than focusing on the question of whether or not to approve the rate, Torres and Caen voiced generally negative sentiments about the CleanPowerSF endeavor before casting “no” votes on the rate approval. Caen said she’d “always had problems with the opt-out situation,” referring to a system of automatic enrollment in the program, and Torres criticized the project for having changed shape, saying, “at the end of the day, this is not what San Franciscans had anticipated.”

The bid to establish CleanPowerSF is mired in charged politics. Because the program threatens Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s monopoly in San Francisco, the utility giant is prepared to shell out whatever it takes to stop the forward momentum. PG&E is deeply influential in San Francisco City Hall, having richly rewarded former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, known to be a frequent dining companion of Mayor Ed Lee, for his consulting services, for instance. Lee opposes the program, and the mayor appoints the SFPUC commissioners.

Torres, the commission president, bristled at suggestions from the public that he was merely carrying the mayor’s water, saying, “I do my own homework, and I make up my own mind.”

But Sup. John Avalos has made up his own mind too, and he sent legislative aide Jeremy Pollock to convey the message to the SFPUC that enough is enough. Avalos plans to go to the City Attorney to find out what can be done about the relentless foot-dragging of a commission that just won’t approve a fair rate for a program that was approved by the Board of Supervisors last fall.

During the public comment session of the hearing, Pollock read Avalos’ statement, which characterized the commission’s refusal to approve the rate as a “constitutional crisis” with regard to the body’s responsibilities.

“Any further delay will essentially show that we are in a constitutional crisis caused by a city department failing to carry out a policy approved by a veto-proof supermajority of the Board of Supervisors,” Avalos’ statement noted. “The Board stands ready to approve these rates, but nothing more can happen until you take action. The City Charter is silent on the possibility of the Public Utilities Commission failing to act on a proposed utility rate. Therefore if there is further delay, I feel I have no choice but to request that the City Attorney explore our options to resolve this type of stalemate—including the possibility of drafting a Charter Amendment. CleanPowerSF is too important and the threat of climate change is too significant to allow this program to die on the vine. It is time for leadership. And this vote will be long remembered for the action you take today.”

But instead of just approving that rate – which is lower, by the way, than originally proposed – the commissioners just seized the opportunity to halt the program from moving forward, since CleanPowerSF cannot advance without a contract, and the contract cannot be signed until a rate has been formally approved.

“It seems as if they are essentially refusing to establish a fair rate, so we’re going to ask the city attorney, you know, what’s the recourse if the PUC is failing to carry out their duties?” Pollock noted.

Just before the votes were cast, Vietor, who had urged her colleagues to go forward and approve the rate at the outset of the meeting, was asked to re-state her motion. She returned to the bright and optimistic prepared statement she’d read at the beginning, only this time with a note of frustration because it was clear that the votes weren’t there. “Today is a historic moment for the San Francisco public utility commission,” she read out loud, “to become a leader in combating climate change.”

Note: This post has been updated from an earlier version.

PG&E union spreads lies about CleanPowerSF

San Francisco’s municipal power agency is gearing up to launch one of the most climate-friendly alternative energy programs in the country, but the forces behind a misleading opposition campaign seek to torpedo that effort.

This past weekend, glossy ads depicting seashells and spilled oil blanketed the doorknobs of Noe Valley residences. Paid for by IBEW 1245, the union that represents employees of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the door hangers conveyed the fear-mongering message that CleanPowerSF “isn’t clean. It’s dirtier than our current power.”

To put it bluntly, that’s bullshit.

Taking them at face value, you might conclude that Shell was about to begin drilling offshore in the San Francisco Bay and that city officials were planning to meet the city’s energy needs with a polluting power plant run solely off tar sands oil. They might even club some baby seals while they were at it.

What’s really happening is that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is gearing up for a hearing on Tue/13 to discuss rate setting for CleanPowerSF, a municipal green energy program that’s been in the works for years. As the power agency inches closer to a full program launch, PG&E and its employees are worried they’ll lose business when San Francisco customers are automatically enrolled in the CleanPowerSF program.

The new power program will continue to use PG&E infrastructure and its existing billing system, but customers’ homes will be powered with a greener electricity mix procured through the city-run program, which is contracting with Shell Energy North America to purchase electricity on the open market from a variety of green power sources.

Naturally, San Francisco is teeming with savvy environmentalists who aren’t buying the slick oppositional blitzkrieg. On Aug. 13, some will band together to set the record straight when a host of representatives from the Sierra Club and others rally at City Hall at noon to express support for immediate implementation of CleanPowerSF.

“Clean energy aggregation is on the rise across the country, making an immediate and direct impact on climate emissions,” said Shawn Marshall, Director of LEAN Energy US. LEAN works with organizations that use the municipal power-purchasing model that CleanPower SF is based on. “The only thing blocking progress in San Francisco is corporate politics, and we encourage the city to deliver on its environmental promises by pressing ahead with CleanPowerSF.”

In a letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, former EPA administrator and World Wildlife Fund Chairman Emeritus William K. Reilly emphasized that CleanPowerSF “is a crucial step for achieving California’s 2020 greenhouse gas goals. It’s also an essential model for California and the rest of the country as cities and communities are compelled to address the problems fueled by climate change.”

Back to those misleading ads. While it is true that Shell is an oil company with a shoddy track record of human rights abuses, it is not true that the energy supplied by CleanPowerSF will be dirtier than electricity provided by PG&E.

To the contrary, only 20 percent of PG&E’s energy mix is derived from green power sources, while the majority of its electricity is generated by nuclear facilities or natural gas power plants. PG&E is also the company responsible for the hexavalent chromium groundwater contamination in the California town of Hinkley, in the Mojave Desert, which provided the basis for the movie Erin Brockovich.

And more recently, PG&E was responsible for the deadly pipeline explosion in San Bruno, which leveled an entire neighborhood. In comparison, CleanPower SF will offer a 100 percent renewable energy mix out of the starting gate.

Some of that mix will initially be derived from renewable energy credits. Called RECs, they’re cheaper because they are “credits” accounting for green power generated somewhere, as opposed to actual green power coming straight over the power lines.

But it’s important to note that the initial use of RECs is a pricing strategy designed to put the agency in a financial position to support green power projects here in San Francisco a little further down the road.

The long-term plan of constructing green power facilities locally would create permanent, decent-paying jobs. It would also supply San Franciscans with electricity generated with technology that can harness the unlimited power potential of the California sun, or the wind that blows in off the Pacific Ocean. This is the outcome that PG&E affiliates seek to thwart, because they fear profit loss.

A few months ago, in an interview with the Guardian, SFPUC spokesperson Charles Sheehan emphasized that it had taken many conversations to get to the point that the agency has finally reached.

“We’ve lowered the rate, we’re now more competitive with PG&E’s baseline offering, and we’re on parity with their potential green tariff program,” he explained. Speaking of a dedicated revenue stream that would go toward funding local clean-power projects, he said, “That line item is really critical to get us to the build-out that we’ve all collectively envisioned as a staff, and as a community.”

Power struggles


Opposition from the San Francisco Labor Council scuttled the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s plans to approve CleanPowerSF on July 9. But activists supporting the renewable energy program actually welcomed that new roadblock, saying it could trigger a more robust rollout of renewable energy projects that they’ve been seeking all along.

“It gives us leverage,” Eric Brooks, an organizer with Our City who has pushed the SFPUC to adopt a more aggressive CleanPowerSF, told us. “They’re insisting on local union jobs and California union jobs, and we’re glad they said that.”

Brooks said labor’s insistence on union job guarantees places the SFPUC under renewed pressure to implement a more aggressive buildout of local energy projects, from building retrofits to wind power generation facilities.

The SFPUC has already come under attack for the program because Shell Energy was the sole bidder to do the initial energy purchases. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents PG&E workers, has used the Shell contract as ammunition in a campaign against CleanPowerSF.

Shell’s involvement also helped IBEW persuade the Labor Council to oppose the project, despite its longstanding support for community choice aggregation, the model for pooling customers into renewable power programs on which CleanPowerSF is based.

“The Labor Council is for community choice aggregation, we just don’t like how the players have shaped up,” Tim Paulson, the council’s executive director, told us. “It really makes us hold our nose that Shell Oil is going to have a role … one of the worst labor law violators in the world.”

While the council’s May 13 resolution criticizes Shell, it also expresses support for renewable energy generation in the city to “help San Francisco meet its climate action goals.”

Brooks and other progressive activists share labor’s disdain for Shell. They’re trying to limit its involvement to merely purchasing the first 20 megawatts of power so CleanPowerSF can get underway with enough customers.

The SFPUC should then take over on power purchases, Brooks says, and start issuing revenue bonds against the CleanPowerSF customer base to build green power projects. New research by consultant Local Power shows CleanPowerSF could create 1,500 local jobs per year for 10 years.

Brooks also doesn’t like Shell’s involvement, but he said it was an acceptable means to the end, which was being able to roll out a CCA program that was competitive enough on price with PG&E that at least 80 percent of its targeted customer base would not choose to opt out, the level he believes they need to fund the buildout, which would bring prices down even more.

When we left a message for Local 1245 spokesperson Hunter Stern to ask whether the union would support CleanPowerSF if it guaranteed more union jobs, he referred questions to Paulson, who wouldn’t go beyond his initial statements.

“If it wasn’t for PG&E’s pressure, Local 1245 probably wouldn’t be doing this,” Brooks said of the union’s aggressive campaign against CleanPowerSF.

Representatives from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission told the Guardian that the agency intends to pursue a buildout of green power infrastructure, although CleanPowerSF director Kim Malcolm says only a few million dollars a year will initially be invested in renewable and efficiency projects.

“That line item is one of the reasons why the advocates are pretty much unanimously supporting this program,” SFPUC spokesperson Charles Sheehan noted. “We listened to them. They wanted a lower rate, they wanted dedicated money for local buildout.”

But to overcome labor’s opposition, those activists want the SFPUC to go further. Malcolm sounded a note of skepticism on Local Power’s job estimate, saying it was based on the assumption that the agency would issue bonds totaling a billion dollars.

“We have no confidence that we could issue a billion dollars worth of bonds in the first few years of the program,” Malcolm said, instead saying the highest the agency expected to go was closer to $200 million.

Brooks wants the Local Agency Formation Commission to hold a public hearing vetting the buildout studies by Local Power, showing the SFPUC and the general public that they are viable. Brooks said that hearing will likely take place in the next two weeks, before SFPUC votes on CleanPowerSF in late July or early August.

Asked about opposition to the program from the San Francisco Labor Council, Malcolm said the SFPUC was in talks to address their concerns. “We have this week been talking to representatives of the Labor Council about those conditions, and how they might actually be implemented in ways that might be practical and promote a sustainable program,” she said.

Brooks said he’s feeling more hopeful than ever about CleanPowerSF, particularly now that the SFPUC has gotten the price down to about 11.5 cents per kilowatt hour, about the same as what PG&E would offer for its proposed green energy program and just $6 more per month than its current brown power service.

“We’ll now hit that sweet spot on prices, and that’s when we can say, ‘Now let’s go for the buildout,” Brooks said. “We know we’re not going to win this if we don’t have labor behind us.”


San Onofre, RIP (no more nukes)


“No news is good news” went right out the window last Friday. San Onofre’s nuclear power plant has announced it will close permanently.

After failed and costly equipment swaps and steam generator failures, So Cal Edison threw in the towel. A half billion in unpaid bills is its legacy.

To say that this is incredibly great for the people of LA, Orange County and San Diego is an understatement of enormous proportions. As the residents of Fukushima, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island might tell you, a nuclear power plant is not conducive to the well being of anyone. The former nuke plant was, like Onofre, proximitous to a fault line and as the disaster in Japan unfolded, surely the people of Carlsbad and Oceanside could feel their guts tighten–well, no more.

Nuclear power–for all of its “bang for the buck”–is yet another taxpayer subsidized disaster. And even Edison admits that with moderate conservation, the plant’s customers may make it through summer as they seek an alternative.

Not to pound the too obvious drum, but as Onofre already has generator infrastructure and is adjacent to uninhabited and bare field and hills, why not do what the Antelope Valley is doing? Cover the giant bubble in panels and kick out the sunny jams. Cover those barren hillsides in same. Given that the cost of solar has plummeted and liability insurance at about nil, it’s about time.

SoCal Edison is loathe to do this, as it does usher in their eventual demise. But the future is headed that way no matter what they think. And with San Onofre down, the trad surfers, the fisherman, the beach lovers–can all return. We won!

Key CleanPowerSF facts matter more than myriad details


It’s great to see our colleagues down the hall at the Examiner and SF Weekly covering the evolving details of CleanPowerSF, San Francisco’s plan for offering renewable energy options to city residents. And we’re all sure to see another barrage of confusing and arcane details being blasted in all directions by Pacific Gas & Electric and its union as they try to derail the program and maintain their monopoly.

These details do matter, but not nearly as much as a couple of important central facts that are too often overlooked or are given short shrift. One, this is the city’s only plan for meeting its greenhouse gas reduction goals, the one proposal out there to actually build renewable energy capacity. There is no other plan, as a recent city study (that’s been buried, but which we unearthed and publicized) shows. We can build all the green buildings we want and fill the roadways with electric vehicles, but if we’re still using PG&E’s fossil fuels to power them, that doesn’t take us very far.  

Two, meeting our greenhouse gas reduction goals requires people to just sign up for CleanPowerSF, even if the plan isn’t perfect, because that customer base is what allows the city to issue revenue bonds to build these projects going forward. The more people there are in the program, the more clean power projects we can build for them, the less greenhouse gases we emit, period.

As the Examiner reported in its cover story today, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has found a way to drastically lower the cost of CleanPowerSF so that its monthly bills will now be on average about $6.50 more than PG&E’s. That relies on using some renewable energy credits, such as those created in the state’s cap-and-trade program, instead of purely the juice directly from renewable energy projects.

That change is now being criticized by some of the same people who criticized the plan for being too expensive, but it’s either one or the other, folks, because renewable energy simply costs more to purchase than the energy that PG&E buys from coal plants or generates at its taxpayer-subsidzed nuclear power plant.

But again, the point that the article gets to in its bottom half is what’s important here: you gotta get people to sign up for the program, then the city will be able to bond against that customer base and build its very own renewable energy projects, which the public will control throughout their lifetimes.

The alternative is abandoning our climate protection goals, or trusting that PG&E is going to benevolently act against its financial interests after scuttling CleanPowerSF and invest a bunch of money in renewable energy projects without jacking up our bills even higher than what the city is proposing — all evidence, history, and common sense to the contrary.

And that means believing that a company that spent a whopping $50 million unsuccessfully campaigning for an audacious ruse, when it should have been using that money on promised system repairs that would have prevented the deaths of eight people — a tragedy that regulators have blamed entirely on PG&E negligence — is going to selflessly act in the public interest.

So, yes, let’s all cover the details of CleanPowerSF, which has an important hearing next month, and make sure this program is as good as it can be. But let’s also not be distracted from the crucial central point: this is about empowering San Francisco to take care of its people and the planet.

PG&E can’t survive solar energy


Years ago, in the middle of the boom in nuclear power plants, we used to say, only half in jest, the private utilities would never accept solar energy because you can’t put a meter on the sun. Turns out that’s pretty close to true.

A new report by The Energy Collective argues that Pacific Gas and Electric Company may be the first utility in the country to go under — because of competition with cheap solar in sunny California. Once solar becomes competitive with PG&E, more and more customers will install panels, forcing PG&E to raise rates on the remaining customers, who will then have even more reason to go solar. The groundwork is already there:

PG&E’s marginal prices cannot compete with solar. Large residential customers pay 31¢-35¢/kWh [kilowatt-hour], the same prices that cause the solar revolutions in Hawaii and Australia. Even worse, according to PG&E, “By 2022, PG&E’s top residential rate could reach 54 cents.” Residential customers represent about 40 percent of PG&E’s retail electric revenue. Commercial customers experience high rates, too. Unlike residential customers, who need a commercial third party to own the solar panels to take advantage of the accelerated depreciation, commercial customers can keep that advantage for themselves, making solar more financially attractive. Commercial customers represent about 46 percent of PG&E’s retail electric revenue.

If it happens soon, it will happen here:

“There is nowhere else in the U.S. with the same confluence of events,” says Short: “High and rising marginal prices, good sunshine, and inability to respond to changed competitive circumstances. If ever an electric utility was set up to fall to solar, it is PG&E.”

This is a great argument for promoting CleanPowerSF (and a good explanation for why PG&E wants to kill it), and shows the need for an eventual municipal takeover of the grid, because even with widespread solar, there’s going to be a need to power to move around between generators and users at different times of the day. And if PG&E is headed for collapse, the city ought to be able to get the infrastructure cheap.


Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill Of The Lord God Oil


Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, I take a brutal boot-camp type class at the Hollywood YMCA here in LA. 45 minutes of sheer hell, but as these things are measured, surely worth it. I’ve been going for the last year and a half at the prodding and urging of my friend Stacy “Beano” Johnson, a lively and lovely woman and an ex-pat Okie from outside Tulsa. Yesterday, I walked in to find her strecthing and she seemed, as you would imagine, distraught. Her state is devastated. Despite downward revisions of casualties, at least 24 people were killed by the storm and the cost to insurers will be over 1 billion dollars. Luckily, none of her family or friends were among the dead or wounded.

Because we are 1) good friends and 2) I am by nature very inquisitve, I asked her if her people back there were putting some of the cause on this particularly violent and early in the year twister on man-made climate change. Beano turned kind of reddish and responded “hell yeah they do. And why wouldn’t they? Summers are getting hot as hell there and it feels like it’s headed to 120 degrees when we go back for vacation. I know damned well it is”.

She isn’t a scientist and is also a self-proclaimed “California liberal” (by way of disclaimer). But this is nothing new to anyone with kin in “flyover country”–my younger brother has been telling me for ten years that the farmers in “Tornado Alley” where he is in Western Illinois talk about the heating and extremes and the effect on crops–and, as Beano has said, why wouldn’t they? 2010 was one of the hottest years on record, another freak tornado devastated Joplin MO in 2011, a drought nearly destroyed the entire Midwest’s crop output last year and now this. Yes–this is where tornadoes happen and they have been happening forever. But scientists warned us that “weather patterns are going to get more extreme and more violent” as the planet heats up and yes it has, and according to 97% of said scientists, the culprit is fossil fuels.

That no peer-reviewed publication has said otherwise and that the only “scientists” that claim that the jury is out tend to be on oil company payrolls isn’t exactly a new revelation. But in Oklahoma, were any politician to claim that the destruction in Moore was because of man-made climate change, they’d be demolished in the next election like so many of the homes were a few days ago.

And why? Because oil is one of the state’s biggest employers, in refining and extraction and logistics. Koch is king in the Sooner State. And even though the average Okie is beginning to see the light, they are willing to look the other way when their livelihood is concerned–their jobs are, in a way, literally to die for.

It is disgusting and sad and vile, but as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal could tell you, there’s no percentage to ever attack the mighty hand of the petro-oligarchy. Despite the cheapskate idiocy by British Petroleum that nearly ruined that state’s fishing and tourism industries, at no point did Jindal demand that BP pay for all the damage they’d wreaked.

And so the oil companies continue their version of bullshit, as their exec’s declare that to destroy the planet is “God’s will” and their paid shills in broadcasting claim zero culpability, the planet roasts and the people of Moore are wondering where they’re gonna live. And if you think this is just far fetched lefty hand wringing, even the almighty insurance industry knows climate change is real and are changing their rates accordingly. These people play the “life and death odds” for a living in actuarial tables. They know.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s two Republican senators are asking for the same federal aid that they denied to Jersey and New York, “God’s will” is again invoked (by America’s #1 publicity hound family) and no one dares speak the truth, that black gold and natural gas are slowly cooking its users and that these same people will battle renewable and clean power with every trick in their arsenal even as it makes their grand-kids lives sheer misery. You might say that the denial is as high as an elephant’s eye in O-kla-Homa……





Why the PG&E settlement is lame


One of the factors that the state regulators took into account when they decided how much PG&E should be fined for the San Bruno blast was the company’s financial situation — that is, how much of a fine could the utility “safely absorb.” That’s the first sign that something screwy is going on here.

If I run a red light, the traffic court doesn’t ask how much of a fine I can “safely absorb.” A crook who embezzles money not only has to pay the money back, but suffer a financial penalty that can greately exceed what he or she can afford. A murderer doesn’t get to go before a judge and say, gee, two years in prison is all I can “safely absorb.” That’s not how it works.

PG&E is a giant company that has a guaranteed annual rate of return exceeding ten percent on everything it spends. It’s shareholders are large investment banks and stock funds. Its executives are very well paid. And gross negligence — that is, intential mismanagement at the level of criminal activity — on the part of the company led to the deaths of eight people and the destruction of an entire neighborhood.

The penalty ought to be MORE than the company can “safely absorb.” It ought to be enough to make shareholders wonder whether PG&E is a good investment. It ought to really, really hurt PG&E.

Instead, the CPUC staff is just telling the company to spend $2.25 billion doing what it should have been doing all along, and needs to do anyway: Fix the pipelines.

Sure, that money will come from profits, not from the ratepayers. But again, as the mayor of San Bruno pointed out on KQED’s Forum this morning, PG&E, as a regulated monopoly utility, has a guaranteed rate of return — and can borrow money at less than half that rate. The company reported revenues of $15 billion and profits of $830 million for 2012. PG&E seems to have plenty of money to fight CleanPowerSF and offer its own “green energy” program for less than the city will charge — and that’s guaranteed to be a money-loser, covered by some of those profits.

The CPUC ought to order the company to fix the pipes — then assess a fine high enough to wipe out all profits for, say, five years, which is how long it’s going to take San Bruno to fully repair the damage and recover from the explosion.

That would be a suitable “punishment.” Would it drive PG&E into bankruptcy? No — lots of companies operate with little or no profit margin these days. Let the killer utility cover its costs, do its job, pay its employees … and nothing more. The staff report is scathing; the penalty sounds stiff. But it’s not going to send enough of a message.


City-owned electricity generation works


I remember years ago a loser of a supervisor named Bill Maher tried to make a lame joke in opposition to a public-power measure. “If the city tries to run an electric system,” he said, “every time I throw a light switch my toilet would flush.”

Ha. Ha. Ha.

But it’s a common refrain: We can’t even run the Muni on time — how can we run an electricity system?

Which is why it’s worth noting that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Public Works have managed, all on their own, to build successful solar generating facilities –– without contract scandals or any other apparent problems. The School District is happy; when they throw the light switch, the lights turn on — and the price of electricity is really, really low (far less than half what Pacific Gas and Electric Co. charges), so there’s more money for classroom instruction.

This is the future of green energy in San Francisco: Small-scale renewable projects, either owned by the city or financed by the city and placed on residential and commercial rooftops. It’s why CleanPowerSF is so important. PG&E is never going to support distributed generation; that kind of project makes PG&E irrelvant and undermines its business model. Once the city has enough generating facilities, it can start buying its own distribution system.

So yeah: Public power works. On a small scale, to be sure, but if the city can build one solar project, it can build more.

Indicator city


When biologists talk about the health of a fragile ecosystem, they often speak of an “indicator species.” That’s a critter — a fish, say, or a frog — whose health, or lack thereof, is a signal of the overall health of the system. These days, when environmentalists who think about politics as well as science look at San Francisco, they see an indicator city.

This progressive-minded place of great wealth, knowledge, and technological innovation — surrounded on three sides by steadily rising tides — could signal whether cities in the post-industrial world will meet the challenge of climate change and related problems, from loss of biodiversity to the need for sustainable energy sources.

A decade ago, San Francisco pioneered innovative waste reduction programs and set aggressive goals for reducing its planet-cooking carbon emissions. At that point, the city seemed prepared to make sacrifices and provide leadership in pursuit of sustainability.

Things changed dramatically when the recession hit and Mayor Ed Lee took office with the promise to focus almost exclusively on economic development and job creation. Today, even with the technology and office development sectors booming and employment rates among the lowest in California, the city hasn’t returned its focus to the environment.

In fact, with ambitious new efforts to intensify development along the waterfront and only lackluster support for the city’s plan to build renewable energy projects through the CleanPowerSF program, the Lee administration seems to be exacerbating the environmental challenge rather than addressing it.

According to conservative projections by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Bay is expected to rise at least 16 inches by 2050 and 55 inches by the end of the century. BCDC maps show San Francisco International Airport and Mission Bay inundated, Treasure Island mostly underwater, and serious flooding the Financial District, the Marina, and Hunters Point.

Lee’s administration has commissioned a report showing a path to carbon reduction that involves promoting city-owned renewable energy facilities and radically reducing car trips — while the mayor seems content do the opposite.

It’s not an encouraging sign for Earth Day 2013.



Last year, the Department of the Environment hired McKinsey and Company to prepare a report titled “San Francisco’s Path to a Low-Carbon Economy.” It’s mostly finished — but you haven’t heard much about it. The department has been sitting on it for months.

Why? Some say it’s because most of the recommendations clash with the Lee administration’s priorities, although city officials say they’re just waiting while they get other reports out first. But the report notes the city is falling far short of its carbon reduction goals and “will therefore need to complement existing carbon abatement measures with a range of new and innovative approaches.”

Data presented in the report, a copy of which we’ve obtained from a confidential source, shows that building renewable energy projects through CleanPowerSF, making buildings more energy-efficient, and discouraging private automobile use through congestion pricing, variable-price parking, and building more bike lanes are the most effective tools for reducing carbon output.

But those are things that the mayor either opposes and has a poor record of supporting or putting into action. The easy, corporate-friendly things that Lee endorses, such as supporting more electric, biofuel, and hybrid vehicles, are among the least effective ways to reach the city’s goals, the report says.

“Private passenger vehicles account for two-fifths of San Francisco’s emissions. In the short term, demand-based pricing initiatives appear to be the biggest opportunity,” the report notes, adding a few lines later, “Providing alternate methods of transport, such as protected cycle lanes, can encourage them to consider alternatives to cars.”

Melanie Nutter, who heads the city’s Department of the Environment, admits that the transportation sector and expanding the city’s renewable energy portfolio through CleanPowerSF or some other program — both of which are crucial to reducing the city’s carbon footprint — are two important areas where the city needs to do a better job if it’s going to meet its environmental goals, including the target of cutting carbon emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2025.

But Nutter said that solid waste reduction programs, green building standards, and the rise of the “shareable economy” — with Internet-based companies facilitating the sharing of cars, housing, and other products and services — help San Francisco show how environmentalism can co-exist with economic development.

“San Francisco is really focused on economic development and growth, but we’ve gone beyond the old edict that you can either be sustainable or have a thriving economy,” Nutter said.

Yet there’s sparse evidence to support that statement. There’s a two-year time lag in reporting the city’s carbon emissions, meaning we don’t have good indicators since Mayor Lee pumped up economic development with tax breaks and other city policies. For example, Nutter touted how there’s more green buildings, but she didn’t have data about whether that comes close to offsetting the sheer number of new energy-consuming buildings — not to mention the increase in automobile trips and other byproducts of a booming economy.

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and president of the BART board, told us that San Francisco seems to have been derailed by the last economic crisis, with economic insecurity and fear trumping environmental concerns.

“All our other values got tossed aside and it was all jobs, jobs, jobs. And then the crisis passed and the mantra of this [mayoral] administration is still jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said. “They put sustainability on hold until the economic crisis passed, and they still haven’t returned to sustainability.”

Radulovich reviewed the McKinsey report, which he considers well-done and worth heeding. He’s been asking the Department of the Environment for weeks why it hasn’t been released. Nutter told us her office just decided to hold the report until after its annual climate action strategy report is released during Earth Day event on April 24. And mayoral Press Secretary Christine Falvey told us, “There’s no hold up from the Mayor’s Office.”

Radulovich said the study highlights how much more the city should be doing. “It’s a good study, it asks all the right questions,” Radulovich said. “We’re paying lip service to these ideas, but we’re not getting any closer to sustainability.”

In fact, he said the promise that the city showed 10 years ago is gone. “Gavin [Newsom] wanted to be thought of as an environmentalist and a leader in sustainability, but I don’t think that’s important to Ed Lee,” Radulovich said.

Joshua Arce, who chairs the city’s Environmental Commission, agreed that there is a notable difference between Newsom, who regularly rolled out new environmental initiatives and goals, and Lee, who is still developing ways to promote environmentalism within his economic development push.

“Ed Lee doesn’t have traditional environmental background,” Arce said. “What is Mayor Lee’s definition of environmentalism? It’s something that creates jobs and is more embracing of economic development.”

Falvey cites the mayor’s recent move of $2 million into the GoSolar program, new electric vehicle charging stations in city garages, and his support for industries working on environmental solutions: “Mayor Lee’s CleantechSF initiative supports the growth of the already vibrant cleantech industry and cleantech jobs in San Francisco, and he has been proactive in reaching out to the City’s 211 companies that make up one of the largest and most concentrated cleantech clusters in the world.”

Yet many environmentalists say that simply waiting for corporations to save the planet won’t work, particularly given their history, profit motives, and the short term thinking of global capitalism.

“To put it bluntly, the Lee administration is bought and paid for by PG&E,” said Eric Brooks with Our City, which has worked for years to launch CleanPowerSF and ensure that it builds local renewable power capacity.

The opening of the McKinsey report makes it clear why the environmental policies of San Francisco and other big cities matter: “Around the globe, urban areas are becoming more crowded and consuming more resources per capita,” it states. “Cities are already responsible for roughly seventy percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and as economic growth becomes more concentrated in urban centers, their total greenhouse gas emissions may double by 2050. As a result, tackling the problem of climate change will in large part depend on how we reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of cities.”

And San Francisco, it argues, is the perfect place to start: “The city now has the opportunity to crystallize and execute a bold, thoughtful strategy to attain new targets, continue to lead by example, and further national and global debates on climate change.”

The unwritten message: If we can’t do it here, maybe we can’t do it anywhere.



San Francisco’s waterfront is where economic pressures meet environmental challenges. As the city seeks to continue with aggressive growth and developments efforts on one side of the line — embodied recently by the proposed Warriors Arena at Piers 30-32, 8 Washington and other waterfront condo complexes, and other projects that intensify building along the water — that puts more pressure on the city to compensate with stronger sustainability initiatives.

“The natural thing to do with most of our waterfront would be to open it up to the public,” said Jon Golinger, who is leading this year’s referendum campaign to overturn the approval of 8 Washington. “But if the lens you’re looking through is just the balance sheet and quarterly profits, the most valuable land maybe in the world is San Francisco’s waterfront.”

He and others — including SF Waterfront Alliance, a new group formed to oppose the Warriors Arena — say the city is long overdue in updating its development plan for the waterfront, as Prop. H in 1990 called for every five years. They criticize the city and Port for letting developers push projects without a larger vision.

“We are extremely concerned with what’s happening on our shorelines,” said Michelle Myers, director of the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter, arguing that the city should be embracing waterfront open space that can handle storm surge instead of hardening the waterfront with new developments. “Why aren’t we thinking about those kinds of projects on our shoreline?”

David Lewis, director of Save the Bay, told us cities need to think less about the value of waterfront real estate and do what it can to facilitate the rising bay. “There are waterfront projects that are not appropriate,” Lewis said. Projects he puts in that category range from a scuttled proposal to build around 10,000 homes on the Cargill Salt Flats in Redwood City to the Warriors Arena on Piers 30-32.

“We told the mayor before it was even announced that it is not a legal use of the pier,” Lewis said, arguing it violated state law preserving the waterfront for maritime and public uses. “There’s no reason that an arena has to be out on the water on a crumbling pier.”

But Brad Benson and Diana Oshima, who work on waterfront planning issue for the Port of San Francisco, say that most of San Francisco’s shoreline was hardened almost a century ago, and that most of the planning for how to use it has already been done.

“You have a few seawall lots and a few piers that could be development sites, but not many. Do we need a whole plan for that?” Benson said, while Oshima praises the proactive transportation planning work now underway: “There has never been this level of land use and transportation planning at such an early stage.”

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission was founded almost 50 years ago to regulate development in and around the Bay, when the concern was mostly about the bay shrinking as San Francisco and other cities dumped fill along the shoreline to build San Francisco International Airport, much of the Financial District, and other expansive real estate plans.

Now, the mission of the agency has flipped.

“Instead of the bay getting smaller, the bay is getting larger with this thing called sea level rise,” BCDC Executive Director Larry Goldspan said as we took in the commanding view of the water from his office at 50 California Street.

A few years ago, as the climate change predictions kept worsening, the mission of BCDC began to focus on that new reality. “How do we create a resilient shoreline and protect assets?” was how Goldspan put it, noting that few simply accept the inundation that BCDC’s sea level rise maps predict. “Nobody is talking about retreating from SFO, or Oakland Airport, or BART.”

That means Bay Area cities will have to accept softening parts of the shoreline — allowing for more tidal marshes and open space that can accept flooding in order to harden, or protect, other critical areas. The rising water has to go somewhere.

“Is there a way to use natural infrastructure to soften the effect of sea level rises?” Goldspan asked. “I don’t know that there are, but you have to use every tool in the smartest way to deal with this challenge.”

And San Francisco seems to be holding firm on increased development — in an area that isn’t adequately protected. “The seawall is part of the historic district that the Port established, but now we’re learning the seawall is too short,” Goldspan said.

BCDC requires San Francisco to remove a pier or other old landfill every time it reinforces or rebuilds a pier, on a one-to-one basis. So Oshima said the district is now studying what it can remove to make up for the work that was done to shore up Piers 23-27, which will become a new cruise ship terminal once the America’s Cup finishes using it a staging ground this summer.

Yet essentially giving up valuable waterfront real estate isn’t easy for any city, and cities have both autonomy and a motivation to thrive under existing economic realities. “California has a history of local control. Cities are strong,” Goldspan said, noting that sustainability may require sacrifice. “It will be a policy discussion at the city level. It’s a new discussion, and we’re just in the early stages.”



Global capitalism either grows or dies. Some modern economists argue otherwise — that a sustainable future with a mature, stable economy is possible. But that takes a huge leap of faith — and it may be the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“In the world we grew up in, our most ingrained economic and political habit was growth; it’s the reflex we’re going to have to temper, and it’s going to be tough.” Bill McKibben writes in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. “Across partisan lines, for the two hundred years since Adam Smith, we’ve assumed that more is better, and that the answer to any problem is another burst of expansion.”

In a telephone interview with the Guardian, McKibben discussed the role that San Francisco could and should be playing as part of that awakening.

“No one knows exactly what economy the world is moving toward, but we can sense some of its dimensions: more localized, less material-based, more innovative; these are things that San Francisco is good at,” he told us, noting the shift in priorities that entails. “We need to do conservation, but it’s true that we also need to build more renewable power capacity.”

Right now, CleanPowerSF is the only mechanism the city has for doing renewable energy projects, and it’s under attack on several fronts before it even launches. Most of the arguments against it are economic — after all, renewable power costs more than coal — and McKibben concedes that cities are often constrained by economic realities.

Some city officials argue that it’s more sustainable for San Francisco to grow and develop than suburban areas — thus negating some criticism that too much economic development is bad for the environment — and Radulovich concedes there’s a certain truth to that argument.

“But is it as green as it ought to be? Is it green enough to be sustainable and avert the disaster? And the answer is no,” Radulovich said.

For example, he questioned, “Why are we building 600,000 square feet of automobile-oriented big box development on Hunters Point?” Similarly, if San Francisco were really taking rising seas seriously, should the city be pouring billions of dollars into housing on disappearing Treasure Island?

“I think it’s a really interesting macro-question,” Jennifer Matz, who runs the Mayors Office of Economic Development, said when we asked whether the aggressive promotion of economic development and growth can ever be sustainable, or whether slowing that rate needs to be part of the solution. “I don’t know that’s feasible. Dynamic cities will want to continue to grow.”

Yet that means accepting the altered climate of new world, including greatly reduced fresh water supplies for Northern California, which is part of the current discussions.

“A lot of the focus on climate change has moved to adaptation, but even that is something we aren’t really addressing,” Radulovich said.

Nutter agreed that adapting to the changing world is conversation that is important: “All of the development and planning we’re doing today needs to incorporate these adaptation strategies, which we’re just initiating.”

But environmentalists and a growing number of political officials say that San Francisco and other big cities are going to need to conceive of growth in new ways if they want to move toward sustainability. “The previous ethos was progress at any cost — develop, develop, develop,” Myers said, with the role of environmentalists being to mitigate damage to the surrounding ecosystem. But now, the economic system itself is causing irreversible damage on a global level. “At this point, it’s about more than conservation and protecting habitat. It’s about self-preservation.”

Dirty war over clean power


It was supposed to be part of Ed Harrington’s legacy, and the chief of the city’s Public Utilities Commission delayed his retirement to make sure it happened.

But six months after the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to move forward with CleanPowerSF, the plan is under attack from all sides. Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s house union is spending big chunks of money to shoot it down. The press is loaded with accounts of how expensive it’s going to be for customers. Advocates on the left are blasting it as too limited.

Critics say Harrington’s replacement, Harlan Kelly, is far less interested in making a program work that clearly lacks the support of a PG&E-friendly mayor.

That’s left Sup. David Campos, City Hall’s chief proponent for CleanPowerSF, trying to move forward with a program that, for all its flaws, is the city’s best chance to put a crack in PG&E’s monopoly.

CleanPowerSF will offer San Franciscans a greener alternative to PG&E power, most of which comes from nonrenewable sources. The city will buy renewable power in bulk, through Shell Energy, and distribute it to customers along PG&E’s lines.

A similar system is working well in Marin County, and communities all over the state are looking to see if a city the size of San Francisco — where PG&E has kept out any hint of competition for a century — can pull it off.

Clean power is more expensive right now, and that’s one sticking point: City officials recognize that not all San Franciscans will be willing to pay a premium (of perhaps $10 to $20 a month) for the option. An SFPUC survey released March 25 showed that about 45 percent of the city’s customers would pay extra for clean power and stick with the new program. Earlier studies suggested that 90,000 customers will remain with CleanPowerSF — enough to make the system financially viable.

(Interestingly, the areas most likely to pay extra to avoid fossil fuels are not the wealthiest parts of town. Most of the customers would be on the Eastside, in communities like the Mission, Potrero Hill, the Haight, and Noe Valley.)

The bigger problem with the current debate is that advocates and city officials can’t agree how much money the city ought to spend, on what schedule, to build its own renewable generation system, which would eventually replace much of the power purchased by Shell.

“In the past we would have figures and claims from all sides, and Ed Harrington would look at the numbers and figure it all out, and everybody trusted him,” Campos said. “But we don’t have Ed any more, and Kelly doesn’t seem to be as strongly behind this.”

Building a green-power infrastructure was always a critical part of the CleanPowerSF plan. And once the city has a system up and running, it can use the revenue stream to float bonds to pay for building solar, wind, and cogeneration facilities.

Over time, the locally generated power would be far cheaper than what anyone can offer today, meaning rates would come down.

“We agreed to move the sales agreement forward to get the system started, then keep working on the build-out,” Campos explained.

But a campaign by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents PG&E employees and is historically allied with the company’s political goals, is trying to scare customers away with claims of high rates. And in fact, the first rate proposals were above what Campos and others were hoping for.

So the Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees CleanPowerSF for the supervisors, and the SFPUC, have send staff back to try to find ways to cut rates.

Meanwhile, Kelly wants to de-couple the public build-out from the Shell agreement, in essence launching the program with the most expensive elements in place — and potentially undermining the future of a publicly owned energy infrastructure.

That has some clean-energy advocates furious — and they’ve threatened to withdraw their support for the program.

“Ever since Harlan Kelly took over, the PUC staff has been less supportive of a robust build-out,” Eric Brooks, who works with Our City has been a longtime supporter of CleanPowerSF, told us. “We’re not saying the city should stop moving forward with the Shell deal, but the city has to continue the planning work for the build-out. It can’t be a piecemeal thing.”

The SFPUC hired a Marin-based outfit called Local Power, led by longtime clean-energy advocate Paul Fenn, to do some preliminary work on how a build-out could proceed. Fenn’s conclusion: The city could create 1,500 to 3,000 jobs and build enough renewable energy to power much of the city, over a seven-year period — at a cost of about $1 billion.

That’s a huge tab — and almost certainly more ambitious than this SFPUC and Board of Supervisors could accept.

Fenn told us that his economic analysis, presented to the SFPUC’s Rate Fairness Board Feb. 18, indicates that the city’s cash flow from CleanPowerSF with a renewable build-out would more than cover the payments on the bonds. But he also agreed that he’s suggesting the best possible alternative — and he expects the city would go for a much smaller piece.

“The Board of Supervisors hasn’t made the decision to spend that kind of money,” he said.

Fenn’s contract expired April 1, and the SFPUC hasn’t renewed it. Instead, another consultant will review Local Power’s work, Campos said.

Part of the political challenge is that Local Power has proposed that much of the build-out include what’s known as “distributed generation” — small-scale solar, wind, and cogen projects on private houses and buildings.

Those installations would be “behind the meter” — that is, they would allow households and businesses to generate their own power without buying it through PG&E’s distribution system.

The build-out proposals that the SFPUC staff have discussed are primarily larger solar arrays, some on land the city owns in the East Bay.

“That’s the most expensive way to do this, and it allows PG&E to still control the transmission and distribution,” Brooks said.

[TK-SFPUC comment Monday.]

Meanwhile, PG&E is preparing to roll out its own competing “green energy” plan — while IBEW ramps up it assault on CleanPowerSF.

The IBEW campaign includes robo-calls, mailers, and advertising, all aimed at convincing customers to opt out of the city program.

And now, with advocates from the Sierra Club to Our City criticizing the program on the left, and IBEW trying to undermine it before it gets going, there’s a real chance that a plan more than 10 years in the making could be in trouble.

That concerns Campos. “All I’m hearing from the advocates is negative,” he said. “I want more build-out, too, but unless we move forward with the program, we won’t be able to do that.”

In fact, he said, “you could wind up killing it and have nothing to show for it at all.”

That, of course, would be PG&E’s preferred alternative.

Campaign to ban bottled water sales in national parks targets GGNRA


UPDATED A national campaign to ban the sale of disposal plastic water and soda bottles in our national parks – which is being actively opposed by Coca-Cola and others who bottle and sell water, that most basic of life-sustaining resources – has arrived in San Francisco as it targets Yosemite and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

“We have thousands of people in the area who are very supportive and working hard on this,” Alyse Opatowski, an organizer with Corporate Accountability International’s Think Outside the Bottle campaign, told the Guardian.

Opatowski and a host of local supporters – including Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, Sierra Club Chapter Executive Director Michelle Meyer, and Hans Florine, who holds a world record for speed climbing in Yosemite – will rally tomorrow (Wed/27) at 10:30am in Crissy Field to publicize the campaign and hold a blind taste tasting comparing San Francisco tap water to bottled waters.

And we know who wins that one, right? San Franciscans are justifiably proud of our water, the best urban water in the country, arriving to us through what’s essentially a gravity-fed straw from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir adjacent to Yosemite. Even though that project broke famed naturalist John Muir’s heart a century ago, it was a engineering marvel and enduring source of clean power and water that we voted overwhelmingly to protect in November when voters rejected a study of the sentimentalists’ dream of removing it.

But back to the issue at hand: activists say that selling single-use water bottles in the national parks in antithetical to environmental stewardship. Health advocates have made some progress in curtailing our addiction to soda, but those crafty soda companies responded by commodifying that which is available basically for free in every locality in the country. And they aren’t about to give up that market without a fight.

Coca-Cola – whose spokespeople haven’t yet returned out calls for comment – gives lots of money to the National Parks Foundation and has used that influence to stall efforts to have the National Parks Service ban bottled water. So the campaign is targetting individual regions, including the GGNRA, which seems well positioned to advance the cause.

Cheers to that.

UPDATE 3/27: American Beverage Association spokesperson Chuck Finnie issued a prepared statement to us that began, “Eliminating plastic bottles altogether isn’t the answer because it limits personal choice and doesn’t address the bigger picture. People should have the choice to decide how they drink water in a National Park — from a bottle of water, from a water fountain, or from a refillable container. While making that choice, they should be educated on the benefits of recycling and ways to do so.”