Clean Power

Editor’s notes


EDITOR’S NOTES The San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission is holding a hearing Dec. 7 on the Mayor’s Renewable Energy Task Force report. That may not sound like the most exciting moment in any of our lives — but it’s actually worth talking about, a lot. Because the city has a goal of reaching 100 percent renewable energy in just eight more years, and the task force think it can be done — and the report, while it has its moments, completely screws up the central tenet of any long-term renewables policy.

Background: Former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was prone to making sweeping press statements about things he never really intended to do, proclaimed in 2010 that San Francisco would be free of all fossil fuel electricity in 10 years. Then he went on his merry way to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

It fell to his successor, Ed Lee, to figure out how to make this happen, so Lee appointed a task force to study the situation. A lot of the members were environmental activists; some were experts in solar energy. One, Ontario Smith, worked for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., hung up five minutes into the first phone-conference meeting, and took his name off the final report.

If you don’t think this is serious business, you haven’t been looking out the window this past week. Scientists are now saying that it’s already too late to prevent the surface temperature of the Earth from rising three degrees, which means volatile and dangerous weather patterns are going to be part of the future anyway, and things might get way, way worse. San Francisco’s energy policy isn’t going to prevent China from burning coal, but it’s a step — and a 100 percent renewable portfolio would be a signal to other cities (and countries) that this is economically and technically feasible.

The report has 39 recommendations, many of them simple, practical, and laudable. It talks (correctly) about the importance of distributed generation — that is, small-scale solar and other renewable systems on houses and commercial buildings. It gives a nod to CleanPowerSF, the city’s community-choice aggregation system.

And it never once mentions public power.

In fact, from the tone of the report, the city plans to get to 100 percent renewable generation with the support and assistance of PG&E.

Let me give you a ring on the clue phone, folks: It isn’t going to happen.

Private utilities don’t have any interest in distributed generation, because it, quite literally, destroys their business model. If I have solar panels on my roof that meet my family’s energy demands, I have no need for PG&E anymore (except to use the company’s grid as a storage battery system, but soon we won’t need that, either). The only functional path to 100 percent renewables in a dense city is small-scale generation — and PG&E stands directly in the way.

I’ve always been a proponent of public ownership of essential services — water, power, streets and roads, firefighting and police operations, broadband, etc. But when it comes to electricity, this is more than a financial and resource-control issue. I see no path to a carbon-free (and nuclear-free) future, in San Francisco or anywhere else, as long as private companies make profits generating power in one place, shipping it along their private lines, and selling it someplace else.

Public power is not sufficient to create Newsom’s energy dream — but it’s absolutely necessary. And I hope the members of LAFCO make that point — and suggest that the task force update its report to reflect economic and political reality.

The missing element of the Renewable Energy study


Since San Francisco’s Local Agency Formation Commission is meeting Dec. 7 to talk about renewable energy, I went and read the 100-page report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Renewable Energy, which offers 39 different suggestions for meeting the goal of 100 renewable electricity in the city by 2020.

That’s a pretty ambitious goal. The guy who set it, Gavin Newsom, loved lofty, ambitious projects, particularly when he was never going to be the one to carry them out. So too here: Newsom announced the city’s goal in 2010, shortly before he left for the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. Ed Le convened the task force earlier this year, and the members, most of whom have legitimate qualifications for the job, got right to work.

The most important conclusion of the report: Yes, it’s financially and technologically feasible to generate all of San Francisco’s electricity from reneweable sources, and we can get their in a short eight years. One key element: More distributed generation — that is, the city needs to create financial and regulatory incentives for people to put solar panels on their roofs. In San Francisco, with sun much of the year (and small houses), a rooftop solar installation can pretty much power the average single-family home and can pick up a fair share of the load of the typical four-unit building.

But while the report gives a shout-out to CleanPowerSF, which will soon be offering 100 percent renewable energy service (for a slightly higher price), and talks about the need for the city to build its own renewable generation facilities, which have to be a part of the plan. But it has a glaring omission — it doesn’t once mention public power.

Why is that an omission? Because San Francisco is never getting to 100 percent renewables while Pacific Gas & Electric Co. still controls the grid.

Right now, with today’s technology, you can’t get close to 100 percent without a significant amount of distributed generation. Lots and lots of people have to generate their own power — at which point, they no longer need PG&E (except that, by law, the grid is the default storage battery, but that’s going to change soon, too). In simple terms, distributed generation puts private utilities out of business. So they won’t ever go for it, and will — quietly, behind the scenes — so everything possible to keep if from happening.

Likewise demand management, something the Renewable Energy Task Force discusses at length. San Francisco already gets about 40 percent of its electricity from the Hetch Hethcy hydro project; If the city could reduce its energy use by 20 percent, that’s 20 percent we don’t have to generate. And reducing use is way cheaper than building new generation facilities.

But why would PG&E want to sell less electricity? There are all sorts of state laws mandating efficiency, but no PG&E CEO is going to make that a big push; it costs the company money. A PG&E that sells 20 percent less electricity is a smaller PG&E, with smaller staff, smaller revenue, and smaller profits. 

That’s why the only way the key components of distributed generation and demand management are ever going to work is if San Francisco gets rid of PG&E and sets up a municipal system. Around the country, the munis are leading the way in renewables, because they have no stockholders to satisfy.

At least that ought to be part of the report, no?


Sorting out a strange election


The way the San Francisco Chronicle pundits put it, Mayor Ed Lee was the clear winner in a grand San Francisco election. “All his measures on the ballot won hands down,” noted Willie Brown, the high-paid lawyer and political operative who also functions as a Chron columnist. “It was a great day for Ed Lee,” proclaimed columnist C.W. Nevius.

Well, not really.

There are a lot of ways to explain and analyze the inconsistent results of one of the most heavily propagandized elections in recent San Francisco history. But no matter how you look at it, the election was at best a wash for the mayor. Indeed, we’d argue that voters rejected the basic premise of the mayor’s political agenda – that tax cuts and favors for big business are the best economic policy – despite record-breaking outside spending selling that agenda and targeting those who stood in its way.

Let’s take a look at the real facts:

• Every single initiative backed by the mayor, the ones he’s getting credit for – from the City College parcel tax to the housing fund to the business tax – was either a compromise with progressives or a measure that originated on the left. There was nothing the mayor pushed that had any significant progressive opposition; his wins were equally, if not more dramatically, wins for the left.

• Both people the mayor appointed to office were soundly rejected by the voters. Rodrigo Santos, his high-profile appointee to the troubled City College Board of Trustees, spent almost $200,000 and finished a distant sixth. Sup. Christina Olague lost to the candidate Lee had rejected for appointment, London Breed, in a complicated race where the mayor’s actual role was unclear (he never withdrew his endorsement of Olague even as his allies trashed her in nasty ways).

• A million-dollar effort funded by some of the mayor’s allies to oust Sup. Eric Mar was a spectacular failure, suggested some serious problems in the mayor’s political operation, and undermined his emphasis on “civility.”

• The voters made clear on every level that they believe higher taxes on the wealthy and closing tax loopholes on big business are the right approach to the economy and to funding government. From Prop. 30 to Prop. 39 to Prop. A to Prop. E, the message was pretty clear: The tax revolt that started in California in 1978 may be winding down, and the notion of making property owners and the wealthy pay for education and public services is no longer a radical idea.

Robert Cruikshank, who writes for the Calitics blog, argues that the November election signals a major sea change in California. “[The] vote to pass Prop 30 — by a larger margin than most observers expected — does more than just provide $6 billion of badly needed funding to the state’s public school,” he wrote. “It brings to a close a 34-year long tax revolt that came very close to destroying California’s middle class, locking its low income families into permanent poverty, and left the state on the edge of financial ruin.”

That sounds like a progressive message. The agenda put forward by the mayor’s closest allies, including right-wing billionaire Ron Conway, who played a heavy-handed role in this election, not only failed to carry the day; the big-money types may have overplayed their hand in a way that will shape the political narratives going forward.


Let’s start with the ballot measures (before we get to the huge and confusing mess that was D5).

Proposition A, the parcel tax for City College, didn’t come out of the Mayor’s Office at all; it came from a City College board whose direction the mayor tried to undermine with the appointment of Santos, a pro-development engineer so conservative that he actually endorsed the Republican opponent of Assembly member Tom Ammiano.

Lee didn’t even endorse Prop. A until a few weeks before the election, and played almost no role in raising money or campaigning for its passage (see “Words and deeds,” 9/11/12). Yet it got a higher percentage of the vote than any of the three measures that Lee actively campaigned for: Props. B, C, and E.

Then there’s Prop. C, the Housing Trust Fund. Lee’s office played a central role in drafting and promoting the measure -– but it wasn’t exactly a Lee initiative. Prop. C came out of the affordable housing community, and Lee, who has strong ties to that community, went along. There were tough negotiations -– the mayor wanted more guarantees and protections for private developers -– and the final product was much more what the progressives who have spent decades on the housing front wanted than what the mayor would have done on his own.

The way the mayor envisioned business-tax reform, the city would have eliminated the payroll tax, which tech firms hate, and replaced it with a gross-receipts tax -– and the result would have been revenue-neutral. It was only after Sup. John Avalos and the progressives demanded that the tax actually bring in more money that the outlines of Prop. E were drafted and it received strong support from groups across the ideological spectrum.

“You had a lot of consensus in the city about these ballot measures,” political consultant David Latterman, who usually works with downtown-backed campaigns, said at SPUR’s post-election round-up.

The supervisorial races were a different story, with unprecedented spending and nasty messaging aimed at tipping the balance in favor of real estate and development interests. Mayor Lee didn’t get directly involved in the District 1 race, but he was clearly not a supporter of incumbent Sup. Eric Mar.

The real-estate and tech folks who are allied with Lee spent more than $800,000 trying to oust Mar — and they failed miserably, with Mar winning by 15 points. While Mar did have the backing of Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak, who raised money and helped organize ground troops to help, Mar’s victory was primarily the result of a massive outpouring of support from labor and progressive activists, many reacting to the over-the-top effort to oust him.

Mar, who voted to put Lee in office, won’t feel a bit indebted to the mayor for his survival against a huge money onslaught. But in District 5, the story was a whole lot more complicated, and impact more difficult to discern.


Before we get into what happened in D5, let’s dispel some of the simplistic and self-serving stories that circulated in the wake of this election, the most prominent being that Olague’s loss -– the first time an incumbent was defeated in a ranked-choice election –- was payback for crossing Mayor Lee and voting to reinstatement Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

It’s certainly true that Lee’s allies went after Olague and supported London Breed, and that they tried to make an issue of domestic violence, but there was much, much more to this district election. Breed is an SF native with a compelling personal story who ran a strong campaign –- and that three strongest progressive candidates in the race each had major flaws that hurt their electability. By most accounts, the Olague campaign was a disaster until the very end. Equally important, the progressive community was divided over D5, leaving room for Breed to slip in.

“It’s hard to unravel what happened here,” Latterman said.

San Francisco Women for Responsibility and an Accountable Supervisor was an independent expenditure group fronted by domestic violence advocates and funded by more than $100,000 from the families of Conway and fellow right-wing billionaire Thomas Coates. It attacked Olague’s Mirkarimi vote as being soft on domestic violence — but it also did a last minute mailer criticizing Olague’s vote for CleanPowerSF, muddling its message of moral outrage.

On election night, Olague told us she believed her split with the Mayor’s Office really had more to do with CleanPowerSF –- which the board approved with a veto-proof majority over the objections of Lee and the business community –- and with her insisting on new revenue from Prop. E than it did with Mirkarimi, whose ouster she dismissed as “a power play” aimed at weakening progressives.

“They don’t want to say it, but it was the whole thing around CleanPowerSF. Do you think PG&E wanted to lose its monopoly?” she said.

Yet Olague said the blame from her loss was also shared by progressives, who were hard on her for supporting Lee, courting his appointment to the D5 seat, and for voting with him on 8 Washington luxury condo project and other high-profile issues. “The left and the right both came at me,” she told us. “From the beginning, people were hypercritical of me in ways that might not be completely fair.”

Fair or not, Olague’s divided loyalties hurt her campaign for the D5 seat, with most prominent progressives only getting behind her at the end of the race after concluding that John Rizzo’s lackluster campaign wasn’t going anywhere, and that Julian Davis, marred as he was by his mishandling of sexual impropriety accusations, couldn’t and shouldn’t win.

Olague told us she “can’t think of anything I would have done differently.” But she later mentioned that she should have raised the threats to renters earlier, worked more closely with other progressive candidates, and relied on grassroots activists more than political consultants connected to the Mayor’s Office.

“The left shouldn’t deal with consultants, we should use steering committees to drive the agenda,” Olague said, noting that her campaign finally found its footing in just the last couple weeks of the race.

Inside sources say Olague’s relations with Lee-connected campaign consultant Enrique Pearce soured months before the campaign finally sidelined him in the final weeks, the result of his wasteful spending on ineffective strategies and divided loyalties once a wedge began to develop between Olague and the Mayor’s Office.

Progressive endorsements were all over the map in the district: The Harvey Milk Club endorsed Davis then declined to withdraw that endorsement. The Tenants Union wasn’t with Olague. The Guardian endorsed Rizzo number one. And none of the leading progressive candidates had a credible ranked-choice voting strategy — Breed got nearly as many second-place votes from Davis and Rizzo supporters as Olague did.

Meanwhile, Breed had a high-profile falling out with Brown, her one-time political ally, after her profanity-laden criticism of Brown appeared in Fog City Journal and then the San Francisco Chronicle, causing US Sen. Dianne Feinstein to withdraw her endorsement of Breed. That incident and Olague’s ties to Lee, Brown, and Pak may have solidified perceptions of Breed’s independence among even progressive voters, which the late attacks on her support from landlords weren’t ever able to overcome.

Ironically, while Breed and some of her prominent supporters, including African American ministers in the district, weren’t happy when Lee bypassed her to appoint Olague, that may have been her key to victory. Latterman noted that while Olague was plagued by having to divide loyalties between Lee and her progressive district and make votes on tough issues like reinstating Mirkarimi –- a vote that could hurt the D5 supervisor in either direction -– Breed was free to run her race and reinforce her independence: “I think Supervisor Breed doesn’t win this race; challenger Breed did.”

But even if Breed lives up to progressive fears, the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors could be up in the air. District 7 soundly rejected Mike Garcia, the hand-picked successor of the conservative outgoing Sup. Sean Elsbernd.

At press time, progressive favorite Norman Yee seemed headed for victory, although FX Crowley was within about 30 votes, making this too close to call. But either way, the once-solid conservative seat will now be a swing vote on many issues, just as Breed will be in the once-solid progressive D5.

“The Board of Supervisors as a whole is becoming a helluva lot more interesting,” was how political consultant Alex Clemens put it at SPUR election wrap-up. “Determining what’s going to happen before it happens just got more difficult.”


The other big story of this election was money, gobs of it, and how it can be spent effectively — or used to raise suspicions about hidden agendas.

Third-party spending on D1 loser David Lee’s behalf was $454,921, with another $219,039 to oppose Mar, pushing total spending to defeat Mar up over the $1 million mark, roughly doubling the previous record. Labor groups, meanwhile, spent $72,739 attacking Lee and $91,690 backing Mar. But many political analysts felt that lop-sided spending only served to turn off voters and reinforce the idea that powerful interests were trying to buy the seat.

In District 5, the landlords, Realtors, and tech moguls spent $177,556 in support of Breed, while labor spent $15,067 attacking her as a shill for the landlord lobby. The only other D5 candidate to attract significant spending by outside groups was Olague, who had $104,016 spent against her, mostly by the families of Conway and Coates, and $45,708 spent in support of her by SEIU 1021. Yet ultimately, none of these groups bought very much with their money. Conway, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and San Francisco Association of Realtors each spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of their money, and the most obvious result was to convince San Franciscans that they’re working together to move an agenda in San Francisco. They may have the mayor on their side, but in a politically sophisticated city like San Francisco –- with its cost of living being driven up by the schemes of Lee, Conway, and the Realtors -– they seem to have a long way to go before they achieve they’re stated desire of destroying the progressive movement, particularly with its rising new leaders on the left, including Matt Haney and Sandra Fewer on the school board and Steven Ngo and Rafael Mandelman on the City College board. As Haney said on Election Night, “It was a good night for progressive San Francisco,” which stands for important egalitarian values. “We are the ones about equity and compassion. That’s what this city is about.”

D5 race displays key SF political dynamics


There’s so much to say about the District 5 supervisorial race, whose top five finishers’ parties I attended tonight, gathering interesting perspectives from each candidate. But given the late hour, I’m just going to run a few thoughts and quotes and save most of it for a more in-depth report tomorrow, because there’s a fascinating story to be told here.

Christina Olague, John Rizzo, and Julian Davis – respectively the second through fourth place candidates – each presented as more progressive than the likely winner, London Breed, who has an 8-point lead going into the final ballot tally and ranked choice tabulation. They and their allies raised concerns that renters were undermined by Breed’s victory in one of the city’s most progressive districts.

“It was a lie. I’m a renter, I live in a rent-controlled apartment,” she told us just before midnight outside in party at Nickie’s on Haight. “I will do everything to protect rent control. I will work with the Tenants’ Union. I’m here to be everybody’s supervisor.”

She pledged to work productively with all the progressive groups who opposed her, such at SEIU Local 1021, whose members “ take care of my mom at Laguna Honda,” while others are her friends.

“The pettiness of politics is over and it’s time to move forward,” Breed said.

It was a widely sounded theme among jubilant progressives tonight, but D5’s (likely) runner-up Olague sounded a bit of bitterness when we caught up with her a little after 11pm as she was leaving her party at Rassela’s on Fillmore. “The Left and the Right both came at me,” she told us.

She felt unfairly attacked by progressives after being appointed to the D5 seat by Mayor Ed Lee, saying her only bad vote was in favor of the 8 Washington luxury condo project, which Sup. Eric Mar also backed without losing progressive support. “From the beginning, people were hypercritical of me in ways that might not be completely fair.”

Then, this fall, Mayor Lee’s people – chief of staff Steve Kawa, tech point person Tony Winnicker, and billionaire backer Ron Conway – turned on her after a series of votes culminating in the one to reinstate Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, resisting what she labeled “a power play” aimed at progressives.

Yet she believes her key vote in favor of CleanPowerSF, coming after her support for Sup. John Avalos getting new revenue out of the business tax reform Prop. E, was really what turned Conway and the downtown crowd against her and attracted outrageous attacks that she condoned domestic violence and supported Big Oil.

“They don’t want to say it, but it was the whole thing around CleanPowerSF. Do you think PG&E wanted to lose its monopoly?” she said. “It’s not about disloyalty, it’s about power.”

Julian Davis was similarly deflective about his campaign’s fourth place finish, despite having a strong presence on the streets today and lots of energy at his crowded campaign party at Club Waziema, after he weathered a loss of prominent progressive endorsements over his handling of sexual misconduct allegations.

“It’s been a challenging few weeks, but I’ve kept my head held high in this campaign,” Davis said, decrying the “self-fulfilling prophecy of the local media” that didn’t focus on the progressive endorsers who stayed with him, such as former D5 Sup. Matt Gonzalez and the SF Tenants Union.

Third place finisher John Rizzo, whose party at Murio’s Trophy Room party reflected his less-than-exuberant campaign, was generally positive about the night, although he expressed some concerns about the agenda of the “people putting up hundreds of thousands of dollars” into this race and the D1 contest, where progressive favorite Eric Mar won a strong victory.

I stopped by Breed’s party twice tonight: at the end, and a little before 10pm, when the results were coming over the television proclaiming that voters in Maryland approved same-sex marriage and Colorado voter legalized marijuana – and the room erupted in cheers – and Oregon voters rejected legalizing weed, drawing big boos.

Breed’s was a liberal crowd, a D5 crowd, and a largely African American crowd. Rev. Arnold Townsend, who is on the Elections Commission and local NAACP board, told me as I left Breed’s party the second time, “It’s a good election for my community. The black community was energized by this.”

New school board member Matt Haney, whose party at Brick & Mortar was my final stop of the night, also likes Breed and said her likely victory was another part of “a good night for progressive San Francisco,” which stands for important egalitarian values. “We are the ones about equity and compassion. That’s what this city is about.”

So-called DV group doing PG&E’s dirty work


Any pretense that the group called San Francisco Women for for Responsibility and an Accountable Supervisor is anything more than a downtown sham vanished with the arrival in District 5 mailboxes Nov. 3 of a mailer attacking Sup. Christina Olague for supporting public power.

The mailer uses pictures of Olague and Julian Davis — and that alone is a not-so-subtle attack on Olague. Davis has lost all credibility in the race, thanks to a string of allegations that he groped women.

It then goes after the two for “support [ing] a $20 million taxpayer giveaway to Big Oil.” The utterly misleading line is based on Olague’s vote to support Clean Power SF, a community choice aggregation program that has the support of public power advocates all over California.

Olague’s not supporting Shell Oil; she just realized, as did a supermajority of the board (including both left stalwarts David Campos and John Avalos and the far more conservative Scott Wiener) that the program makes sense for San Francisco and will lead in the long term to much greater energy self-reliance. The only ones putting out the Shell Oil line are PG&E and its house union, IBEW Local 1245.

Oh, and now a group that supposedly advocates for domestic violence victims.

This is a disgrace, an embarassment to the district and the city. Ron Conway and Thomas Coates are attacking Olague because they’re afraid she’ll vote against their development and landlord interests, not because they care about domestic violence.

This election matters, a lot. It’s clear where the big-money interests are; I hope D5 residents reject this attempt to buy the election.


Man for the moment?


This year’s supervisorial race in District 5 — representing the Haight, Panhandle, and Western Addition, some of the most reliably progressive precincts in the city — has been frustrating for local leftists. But as the long and turbulent campaign enters its final week, some are speculating that John Rizzo, whose politics are solid and campaign lackluster, could be well-positioned to capitalize on this strange political moment.

Appointed incumbent Sup. Christina Olague has been a disappointment to some of her longtime progressive allies, although she’s now enjoying a resurgence of support on the left in the wake of her vote to reinstate Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. Now two allies of the mayor — tech titan Ron Conway and landlord Thomas Coates — are funding a $120,000 last-minute attack on Olague.

The campaign of one-time left favorite Julian Davis lost most of its progressive supporters following his recent mishandling of accusations of bad behavior toward women (see “Julian Davis should drop out,” 10/16).

The biggest fear among progressive leaders is that London Breed, a well-funded moderate candidate being strongly supported by real estate and other powerful interests, will win the race and tip the Board of Supervisors to the right. The final leg of the campaign could be nasty battle between Breed and Olague and their supporters, who tend to see it as a two-person race at this point.

But in a divisive political climate fed by the Mirkarimi and Davis scandals and the unprecedented flood of hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate and tech money, it’s hard to say what D5 voters will do, particularly given the unpredictably of how they will use ranked-choice voting to sort through this mess.

Running just behind these three tarnished and targeted candidates in terms of money and endorsements are Rizzo and small business person Thea Selby, who described their candidacies as “the grown-ups in the room, so there’s an opportunity there and I’m hopeful.”

Selby hasn’t held elective office and doesn’t have same name-recognition and progressive history as Rizzo, although she has one of the Guardian’s endorsements. It probably didn’t help win progressive confidence when the downtown-backed Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth recently did an independent expenditure on behalf of both Selby and Breed.

And then there’s Rizzo, who has been like the tortoise in this race, quietly spending his days on the streets meeting voters. Between fundraising and public financing, Rizzo collected about $65,000 as of Oct. 20 (compared to Breed’s nearly $250,000), but he’s been smart and frugal with it and has almost $20,000 in the bank for the final stretch, more than either Olague or Davis.

But perhaps more important than money or retail politics, if indeed D5 voters continue their strongly progressive voting trends, are two key facts: Rizzo is the most clear and consistent longtime progressive activist in the race — and he’s a nice, dependable guy who lacks the oversized ego of many of this city’s leaders.

“I see consistency there and a lack of drama,” Assembly member Tom Ammiano, an early Rizzo endorser, told us. “He’s looking not like a flip-flopper, not like he owes anyone, and he doesn’t have a storied past.”



Rizzo, who was born in New York City 54 years ago, is downright boring by San Francisco standards, particularly given his long history in a local progressive movement known for producing fiery warriors like Chris Daly, shrewd strategists like Aaron Peskin, colorful commenters like Ammiano, bohemian thinkers like Matt Gonzalez, and flawed idealists like Ross Mirkarimi.

Rizzo is a soft-spoken family man who has lived in the same building on Waller Street in the Haight-Ashbury for the last 27 years. Originally, he and Christine, his wife of 25 years, rented their apartment in a tenancy-in-common building before they bought it in the early 1990s, although he’s quick to add, “In all the years we’ve owned it, we never applied for condoship.”

He supports the city’s limits on condo conversions as important to protecting working-class housing, although he said, “The focus should be on building new affordable housing.” That’s an issue Rizzo has worked on since joining the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter more than 20 years ago, an early advocate for broadening the chapter’s view of environmentalism.

He’s a Muni rider who hasn’t owned a car since 1987.

Michelle Myers, director of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter, said Rizzo brings a wealth of experience, established relationships, and shrewd judgment to his role as the group’s political chair. “We really rely on John’s ability to weigh what is politically feasible, not just what’s ideal in our minds,” she told us.

Yet that political realism shouldn’t be confused for a lack of willingness to fight for big, important goals. Rizzo has been an advocate for public power in San Francisco for many years, strategizing with then-Sup. Ammiano in 2001 to implement a community choice aggregation program, efforts that led to this year’s historic passage of the CleanPowerSF program (with a key vote of support by Olague) over the objections of Mayor Lee and some business leaders.

“CleanPowerSF was carried by John Rizzo, who has been working on that issue for 10 years,” Myers said.

Rizzo is a technology writer, working for prospering computer magazines in the 1990s “until they all went away with the bubble,” as well as books (his 14th book, Mountain Lion Server for Dummies, comes out soon).

He sees the “positives and the negatives” of the last tech boom and this one, focusing on solving problems like the Google and Genetech buses blocking traffic or Muni bus stops. “On the one hand, these people aren’t driving, but on the other hand, they’re unregulated and using our bus stops,” he said. “We need to find some solution to accommodate them. Charge them for it, but accommodate them.”

That’s typical of how Rizzo approaches issues, wanting to work with people to find solutions. As president of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees, Rizzo suffered the bad timing of the district having its accreditation threatened just as his supervisorial race was getting underway, but he’s steadily worked through the administrative problems that predated his tenure, starting with the criminal antics of former Chancellor Phil Day and continuing with “a management structure still in place, and it had calcified.”

Despite being on the campaign trail, Rizzo called the trustees together six times in August to deal with the accreditation problems. “We now have a plan that shows all the things the district needs to do to keep it afloat. City College is back on track.”



Eileen Hansen — a longtime progressive activist, former D8 supervisorial candidate, and former Ethics Commissioner — gave her early endorsement to Rizzo, who never really seemed to catch fire. “There hasn’t been a lot of flash and I would love for there to be more energy,” she admitted.

So, like many progressive leaders, she later offered her endorsement to Davis, believing he had the energy needed to win the race. But after Davis’ problems, Hansen withdrew that endorsement and sees Rizzo as the antidote to its problems.

“We are in such a mess in D5, and I’m hoping they will say, ‘enough already, let’s find someone who’s just good on the issues, and that’s John,” Hansen said. “As a progressive, if you look at his stands over many years, I’d be hard-pressed to find an issue I don’t agree with him on. He’s a consistent, strong progressive voice, someone you can count on who’s not aligned with some power base.”

Other prominent progressive leaders agree.

“What some people may have viewed as his weak point may end up being his strength,” said former Board President Aaron Peskin, who endorsed Rizzo after the problems surfaced with Davis. “A calm, steady, cool, collected, dispassionate progressive may actually be the right thing for this moment.”

Sup. Malia Cohen, a likable candidate who rose from fourth place on election night to win a heated District 10 supervisorial race two years ago, is a testament to how ranked-choice voting opens up lots of new possibilities.

“Ranked choice voting defies conventional wisdom,” Peskin said. “There may be Julian Davis supporters and Christina Olague supporters and London Breed supporters who all place John Rizzo as their second.”

In fact, during our endorsement interviews and in a number of debates and campaign events, nearly every candidate in the race mentioned Rizzo as a good second choice.

Yet Rizzo doesn’t mince words when he talks about the need for reconstitute the progressive movement after the deceptions and big-money interests that brought Mayor Lee and “his fake age of civility” to power. Lee promised not to seek a full term “and he broke the deal,” Rizzo said. “And it was a public deal he broke, not some backroom deal.” 

That betrayal and the money-driven politics that Lee ushered in, combined with the divisive political climate that Lee’s long effort to remove Mirkarimi from office created, has deeply damaged the city’s political system. “I think the climate is very bad It’s bad for progressives, and just bad for politics because it’s turning voters off,” Rizzo said.

He wants to find ways to empower average San Franciscans and get them engaged with helping shape the city’s future.

“We need a new strategy. We need to regroup and think about things long and hard. I think it’s not working here. We’re doing the same things and it’s not working out. The money is winning.” He doesn’t think the answers lie in continued conflict, or with any individual politicians “because people are flawed, everyone is,” Rizzo said.

Yet Rizzo’s main flaw in the rough-and-tumble world of political campaigns may be that he’s too nice, too reluctant to toot his horn or beat his chest. “That kind of style is not me. That aggressive person is not who I am,” Rizzo said. “But I think voters like that. Voters do want someone who is going to focus on policy and not themselves.”

Endorsements 2012: San Francisco propositions





The scathing accreditation report by the Western Association of Schools talks about governance problems at the San Francisco Community College District — a legitimate matter of concern. But most of what threatens the future of City College is a lack of money.

Check out the accreditation letter; it’s on the City College website. Much of what it says is that the school is trying to do too much with limited resources. There aren’t enough administrators; that’s because, facing 20 percent cuts to its operating budget, the college board decided to save front-line teaching jobs. Student support services are lacking; that’s because the district can barely afford to keep enough classes going to meet the needs of some 90,000 students. On the bigger picture, WASC and the state want City College to close campuses and concentrate on a core mission of offering two-year degrees and preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions. That’s because the state has refused to fund education at an adequate level, and there’s not enough money to both function as a traditional junior college and serve as the training center for San Francisco’s tech, hospitality and health-care industry, provide English as a second language classes to immigrants and offer new job skills and rehabilitation to the workforce of the future.

It’s fair to say that WASC would have found some problems at City College no matter what the financial situation (and we’ve found more — the nepotism and corruption under past boards has been atrocious). But the only way out of this mess is either to radically scale back the school’s mission — or to increase its resources. We support the latter alternative.

Prop. A is a modest parcel tax — $79 dollars a year on each property lot in the city. Parcel taxes are inherently unfair — a small house in Hunters Point pays as much as a mansion in Pacific Heights or a $500 million downtown office building. But that’s the result of Prop. 13, which leaves the city very few ways to raise taxes on real property. In the hierarchy of progressive tax options, parcel taxes are better than sales taxes. And the vast majority of San Francisco homeowners and commercial property owners get a huge benefit from Prop. 13; a $6 a month additional levy is hardly a killer.

The $16 million this tax would raise annually for the district isn’t enough to make up for the $25 million a year in state budget cuts. But at least the district would be able to make reasonable decisions about preserving most of its mission. This is one of the most important measures on the ballot; vote yes.




There are two questions facing the voters: Does the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department need money to fix up badly decrepit, sometimes unsafe facilities, and build out new park areas, particularly in underserved neighborhoods? Has the current administration of the department so badly mismanaged Rec-Park, so radically undermined the basic concept of public access to public space, so utterly alienated neighborhoods and communities all over the city, that it shouldn’t be trusted with another penny?

And if your answer to both is yes, how the hell do you vote on Prop. B?

It’s a tough one for us. The Guardian has never, in 46 years, opposed a general obligation bond for anything except jail or prisons. Investing in public infrastructure is a good thing; if anything, the cautious folks at City Hall, who refuse to put new bonds on the ballot until old ones are paid off, are too cautious about it. Spending public money (paid by increased property taxes in a city where at least 90 percent of real estate is way under taxed thanks to Prop. 13) creates jobs. It’s an economic stimulus. It adds to the value of the city’s resources. In this case, it fixes up parks. All of that is good; it’s hard to find a credible case against it.

Except that for the past few years, under the administrations of Mayors Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee and the trusteeship of Rec-Park Directors Jared Blumenfeld and Phil Ginsburg, the city has gone 100 percent the wrong way. Parks are supposed to be public resources, open to all; instead, the department has begun charging fees for what used to be free, has been turning public facilities over to private interests (at times kicking the public out), and has generally looked at the commons as a source of revenue. It’s a horrible precedent. It makes us sick.

Ginsburg told us that he’s had no choice — deep budget cuts have forced him to look for money wherever he can find it, even if that means privatizing the parks. But Ginsburg also admitted to us that, even as chief of staff under Newsom, he never once came forward to push for higher taxes on the wealthy, never once suggested that progressive revenue sources might be an option. Nor did any of the hacks on the Rec-Park Commission. Instead, they’ve been busy spending tens of thousands of dollars on an insane legal battle to evict the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council’s recycling center — entirely because rich people in the Haight don’t want poor people coming through their elite neighborhood to cash in bottles and cans for a little money.

So now we’re supposed to cough up another $195 million to enable more of this?

Well, yes. We’re not happy to be endorsing Prop. B, but the bottom line is simple: The bond money will go for things that need to be done. There are, quite literally, parks in the city where kids are playing in unsafe and toxic conditions. There are rec centers that are pretty close to falling apart. Those improvements will last 50 years, well beyond the tenure of this mayor of Rec-Park director. For the long-term future of the park system, Prop. B makes sense.

If the measure fails, it may send Lee and Ginsburg a message. The fact that so many neighborhood leaders are opposing it has already been a signal — one that so far Ginsburg has ignored. We’re going Yes on B, with all due reservations. But this commission has to go, and the sooner the supervisors can craft a charter amendment to give the board a majority of the appointments to the panel the better.+




This measure is about who gets to live in San Francisco and what kind of city this will be in 20 years. If we leave it up to market forces and the desires of developers, about 85 percent of the housing built in San Francisco will be affordable only by the rich, meaning the working class will be forced to live outside the city, clogging regional roadways and transit systems and draining San Francisco of its cultural diversity and vibrancy. And that process has been accelerated in recent years by the latest tech bubble, which city leaders have decided to subsidize with tax breaks, causing rents and home prices to skyrocket.

Mayor Ed Lee deserves credit for proposing this Housing Trust Fund to help offset some of that impact, even if it falls way short of the need identified in the city’s Housing Element, which calls for 60 percent of new housing construction to be affordable to prevent gentrification. We’re also not thrilled that Prop. C actually reduces the percentage of housing that developers must offer below market rates and prevents that 12 percent level from later being increased, that it devotes too much money to home ownership assistance at the expense of the renters who comprise the vast majority of city residents, and that it depends on the passage of Prop.E and would take $15 million from the increased business taxes from that measure, rather than restoring years of cuts to General Fund programs.

But Prop. C was a hard-won compromise, with the affordable housing folks at the table, and they got most of what they wanted. (Even the 12 percent has a long list of exceptions and thus won’t apply to a lot of new market-rate housing.) And it has more chance of actually passing than previous efforts that were opposed by the business community and Mayor’s Office. This measure would commit the city to spending $1.5 billion on affordable housing projects over the next 30 years, with an initial $20 million annual contribution steadily growing to more than $50 million annually by 2024, authorizing and funding the construction of 30,000 new rental units throughout the city. With the loss of redevelopment funds that were devoted to affordable housing, San Francisco is a city at risk, and passage of Prop. C is vital to ensuring that we all have a chance of remaining here. Vote yes.




There’s a lot of odd stuff in the San Francisco City Charter, and one of the twists is that two offices — the city attorney and the treasurer — are elected in an off-year when there’s nothing else on the ballot. There’s a quaint kind of charm to that, and some limited value — the city attorney is one of the most powerful officials in local government, and that race could get lost in an election where the mayor, sheriff, and district attorney are all on the ballot.

But seriously: The off-year elections have lower turnout, and cost the city money, and it’s pretty ridiculous that San Francisco still does it this way. The entire Board of Supervisors supports Prop. D. So do we. Vote yes.




Over the past five years, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu estimates, San Francisco has cut about $1.5 billion from General Fund programs. It’s been bloody, nasty, awful. The budget reductions have thrown severely ill psych patients out of General Hospital and onto the streets. They’ve forced the Recreation and Parks Department to charge money for the use of public space. They’ve undermined everything from community policing to Muni maintenance.

And now, as the economy starts to stabilize a bit, the mayor wants to change the way businesses are taxed — and bring an additional $28.5 million into city coffers.

That’s right — we’ve cut $1.5 billion, and we’re raising taxes by $28.5 million. That’s less than 2 percent. It’s insane, it’s inexcusable, it’s utterly the wrong way to run a city in 2012. It might as well be Mitt Romney making the decision — 98 percent cuts, 2 percent tax hikes.

Nevertheless, that’s where we are today — and it’s sad to say this is an improvement from where the tax discussion started. At first, Mayor Lee didn’t want any tax increase at all; progressive leaders had to struggle to convince him to allow even a pittance in additional revenue.

The basic issue on the table is how San Francisco taxes businesses. Until the late 1990s, the city had a relatively rational system — businesses paid about 1.5 percent of their payroll or gross receipts, whichever was higher. Then 52 big corporations, including PG&E, Chevron, Bechtel, and the Gap, sued, arguing that the gross receipts part of the program was unfair. The supervisors caved in to the legal threat and repeal that part of the tax system — costing the city about $30 million a year. Oh, but then tech companies — which have high payrolls but often, at least at first, low gross receipts — didn’t want the payroll tax. The same players who opposed the other tax now called for its return, arguing that taxing payroll hurts job growth (which is untrue and unfounded, but this kind of dogma doesn’t get challenged in the press). So, after much discussion and debate, and legitimate community input, the supervisors unanimously approved Prop. E — which raises a little more money, but not even as much as the corporate lawsuit in the 1990s set the city back. It’s not a bad tax, better than the one we have now — it brings thousands of companies the previously paid no tax at all into the mix (sadly, some of them small businesses). It’s somewhat progressive — companies with higher receipts pay a higher rate. We can’t argue against it — the city will be better off under Prop. E than it is today. But we have to look around our battered, broke-ass city, shake our poor bewildered heads and say: Is this really the best San Francisco can do? Sure, vote yes on E. And ask yourself why one of the most liberal cities in America still lets Republican economic theory drive its tax policy.




Reasonable people can disagree about whether San Francisco should have ever dammed the Tuolumne River in 1923, flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley and creating an engineering marvel that has provided the city with a reliable source of renewable electricity and some of the best urban drinking water in the world ever since. The project broke the heart of famed naturalist John Muir and has caused generations since then to pine for the restoration of a valley that Muir saw as a twin to his beloved nearby Yosemite Valley.

But at a time when this country can’t find the resources to seriously address global warming (which will likely dry up the Sierra Nevada watershed at some point in the future), our deteriorating infrastructure, and myriad other pressing problems, it seems insane to even consider spending billions of dollars to drain this reservoir, restore the valley, and find replacement sources of clean water and power.

You can’t argue with the basic facts: There is no way San Francisco could replace all the water that comes in from Hetch Hetchy without relying on the already-fragile Delta. The dam also provides 1.7 billion kilowatt hours a year of electric power, enough to meet the needs of more than 400,000 homes. That power now runs everything from the lights at City Hall to Muni, at a cost of near zero. The city would lose 42 percent of its energy generation if the dam went away.

Besides, the dam was, and is, the lynchpin of what’s supposed to be a municipal power system in the city. As San Francisco, with Clean Power SF, moves ever close to public power, it’s insane to take away this critical element of any future system.

On its face, the measure merely requires the city to do an $8 million study of the proposal and then hold a binding vote in 2016 that would commit the city to a project estimated by the Controller’s Office to cost somewhere between $3 billion and $10 billion. Yet to even entertain that possibility would be a huge waste of time and money.

Prop. F is being pushed by a combination of wishful (although largely well-meaning) sentimentalists and disingenuous conservatives like Dan Lungren who simply want to fuck with San Francisco, but it’s being opposed by just about every public official in the city. Vote this down and let’s focus our attention on dealing with real environmental and social problems.




If San Francisco voters pass Prop. G, it won’t put any law into effect. It’s simply a policy statement that sends a message: Corporations are not people, and it’s time for the federal government to tackle the overwhelming and deeply troubling control that wealthy corporations have over American politics.

Prop. G declares that money is not speech and that limits on political spending improve democratic processes. It urges a reversal of the notorious Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court decision.

A constitutional amendment, and any legal messing with free speech, has serious potential problems. If corporations are limited from spending money on politics, could the same apply to unions or nonprofits? Could such an amendment be used to stop a community organization from spending money to print flyers with political opinions?

But it’s a discussion that the nation needs to have, and Prop. G is a modest start. Vote yes.

Endorsements 2012: State and national races


National races



You couldn’t drive down Valencia Street on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008. You couldn’t get through the intersection of 18th and Castro, either. All over the east side of the city, people celebrating the election of Barack Obama and the end of the Bush era launched improptu parties, dancing and singing in the streets, while the cops stood by, smiling. It was the only presidential election in modern history that create such an upwelling of joy on the American left — and while we were a bit more jaded and cautious about celebrating, it was hard not to feel a sense of hope.

That all started to change about a month after the inauguration, when word got out that the big insurance companies were invited to be at the table, discussing health-care reform — and the progressive consumer advocates were not. From that point on, it was clear that the “change” he promised wasn’t going to be a fundamental shift in how power works in Washington.

Obama didn’t even consider a single-payer option. He hasn’t shut down Guantanamo Bay. He hasn’t cut the Pentagon budget. He hasn’t pulled the US out of the unwinnable mess in Afghanistan. He’s been a huge disappointment on progressive tax and economic issues. It wasn’t until late this summer, when he realized he was facing a major enthusiasm gap, that he even agreed to endorse same-sex marriage.

But it’s easy to trash an incumbent president, particularly one who foolishly thought he could get bipartisan support for reforms and instead wound up with a hostile Republican Congress. The truth is, Obama has accomplished a fair amount, given the obstacles he faced. He got a health-care reform bill, weak and imperfect as it was, passed into law, something Democrats have tried and failed at since the era of FDR. The stimulus, weak and limited as it was, clearly prevented the recession from becoming another great depression. His two Supreme Court appointments have been excellent.

And the guy he’s running against is a disaster on the scale of G.W. Bush.

Mitt Romney can’t even tell the truth about himself. He’s proven to be such a creature of the far-right wing of the Republican Party that it’s an embarrassment. A moderate Republican former governor of Massachusetts could have made a credible run for the White House — but Romney has essentially disavowed everything decent that he did in his last elective office, has said one dumb thing after another, and would be on track to be one of the worse presidents in history.

We get it: Obama let us down. But there’s a real choice here, and it’s an easy one. We’ll happily give a shout out to Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party, who is talking the way the Democrats ought to be talking, about a Green New Deal that recognizes that the richest nation in the history of the world can and should be doing radically better on employment, health care, the environment, and economic justice. And since Obama’s going to win California by a sizable majority anyway, a protest vote for Stein probably won’t do any harm.

But the next four years will be a critical time for the nation, and Obama is at least pushing in the direction of reality, sanity and hope. We endorsed him with enthusiasm four year ago; we’re endorsing him with clear-eyed reality in 2012.



Ugh. Not a pleasant choice here. Elizabeth Emken is pretty much your standard right-wing-nut Republican out of Danville, a fan of reducing government, cutting regulations, and repealing Obamacare. Feinstein, who’s already served four terms, is a conservative Democrat who loves developers, big business, and the death penalty, is hawkish on defense, and has used her clout locally to push for all the wrong candidates and all the wrong things. She can’t even keep her word: After Willie Brown complained that London Breed was saying mean things about him, Feinstein pulled her endorsement of Breed for District 5 supervisor.

It’s astonishing that, in a year when the state Democratic Party is aligned behind Proposition 34, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole, Feinstein can’t find it in herself to back away from her decades-long support of capital punishment. She’s not much better on medical marijuana. And she famously complained when then-mayor Gavin Newsom pushed same-sex marriage to the forefront, saying America wasn’t ready to give LGBT couples the same rights as straight people.

But as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein was pretty good about investigating CIA torture and continues to call for the closure of Guantanamo Bay. She’s always been rock solid on abortion rights and at least decent, if not strong, on environmental issues.

It’s important for the Democrats to retain the Senate, and Feinstein might as well be unopposed. She turns 80 next year, so it’s likely this will be her last term.



The real question on the minds of everyone in local politics is what will happen if the Democrats don’t retake the House and Pelosi has to face two more years in the minority. Will she serve out her term? Will her Democratic colleagues decide they want new leadership? The inside scuttle is that Pelosi has no intention of stepping down, but a long list of local politicians is looking at the once-in-a-lifetime chance to run for a Congressional seat, and it’s going to happen relatively soon; Pelosi is 72.

We’ve never been happy with Rep. Pelosi, who used the money and clout of the old Burton machine to come out of nowhere to beat progressive gay supervisor Harry Britt for the seat in 1986. Her signature local achievement is the bill that created the first privatized national park in the nation’s history (the Presidio), which now is home to a giant office complex built by filmmaker George Lucas with the benefit of a $60 million tax break. She long ago stopped representing San Francisco, making her move toward Congressional leadership by moving firmly to the center.

But as speaker of the House, she was a strong ally for President Obama and helped move the health-care bill forward. It’s critical to the success of the Obama administration that the Democrats retake the house and Pelosi resumes the role of speaker.



Barbara Lee represents Berkeley and Oakland in a way Nancy Pelosi doesn’t represent San Francisco. She’s been a strong, sometimes lonely voice against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a leader in the House Progressive Caucus. While Democrats up to and including the president talk about tax cuts for businesses, Lee has been pushing a fair minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and an end to subsidies for the oil industry. While Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was struggling with Occupy, and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was moving to evict the protesters, Barbara Lee was strongly voicing her support for the movement, standing with the activists, and talking about wealth inequality. We’re proud to endorse her for another term.



Speier’s an improvement on her predecessor, Tom Lantos, who was a hawk and terrible on Middle East policy. Speier’s a moderate, as you’d expect in this Peninsula seat, but she’s taken the lead on consumer privacy issues (as she did in the state Legislature) and will get re-elected easily. She’s an effective member of a Bay Area delegation that helps keep the House sane, so we’ll endorse her for another term.

State candidates



Tom Ammiano’s the perfect person to represent San Francisco values in Sacramento. He helped sparked and define this city’s progressive movement back in the 1970s as a gay teacher marching alongside with Harvey Milk. In 1999, his unprecedented write-in mayoral campaign woke progressives up from some bad years and ushered in a decade with a progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors that approved landmark legislation such as the universal healthcare program Ammiano created. In the Assembly, he worked to create a regulatory system for medical marijuana and chairs the powerful Public Safety Committee, where he has stopped the flow of mindless tough-on-crime measures that have overflowed our prisons and overburdened our budgets. This is Ammiano’s final term in the Legislature, but we hope it’s not the end of his role in local politics.



Phil Ting could be assessor of San Francisco, with a nice salary, for the rest of his life if that’s what he wanted to do. He’s done a good job in an office typically populated with make-no-waves political hacks — he went after the Catholic Church when that large institution tried to avoid paying taxes on property transfers. He’s been outspoken on foreclosures and commissioned, on his own initiative, a study showing that a large percentage of local foreclosures involved at least some degree of fraud or improper paperwork.

But Ting is prepared to take a big cut in pay and accept a term-limited future for the challenge of moving into a higher-profile political position. And he’s the right person to represent this westside district.

Ting’s not a radical leftist, but he is willing to talk about tax reform, particularly about the inequities of Prop. 13. He’s carrying the message to homeowners that they’re shouldering a larger part of the burden while commercial properties pay less. He wants to change some of the loopholes in how Prop. 13 is interpreted to help local government collect more money.

It would be nice to have a progressive-minded tax expert in the Legislature, and we’re glad Ting is the front-runner. He’s facing a serious, well-funded onslaught from Michael Breyer, the son of Supreme Court Justice Breyer, who has no political experience or credentials for office and is running a right-wing campaign emphasizing “old-style San Francisco values.”

Not pretty. Vote for Ting.



Mark Leno wasn’t always in the Guardian’s camp, and we don’t always agree with his election season endorsements, but he’s been a rock-solid representative in Sacramento and he has earned our respect and our endorsement.

It isn’t just how he votes, which we consistently agree with. Leno has been willing to take on the tough fights, the ones that need to be fought, and shown the tenacity to come out on top in the Legislature, even if he’s ahead of his time. Leno twice got the Legislature to legalize same-sex marriage, he has repeatedly gotten that body to legalize industrial hemp production, and he’s twice passed legislation that would give San Francisco voters the right to set a local vehicle license fees higher than the state’s and use that money for local programs (which the governor finally signed). He’s also been laying an important foundation for creating a single-payer healthcare system and he played an important role in the CleanPowerSF program that San Francisco will implement next year. Leno will easily be re-elected to another term in the Senate and we look forward to his next move (Leno for mayor, 2015?)





San Francisco has been well represented on the BART Board by Radulovich, a smart and forward-thinking urbanist who understands the important role transit plays in the Bay Area. Radulovich has played leadership roles in developing a plan that aims to double the percentage of cyclists using the system, improving the accessibility of many stations to those with limited mobility, pushing through an admittedly imperfect civilian oversight agency for the BART Police, hiring a new head administrator who is more responsive to community concerns, and maintaining the efficiency of an aging system with the highest ridership levels in its history. With a day job serving as executive director of the nonprofit Livable City, Radulovich helped create Sunday Streets and other initiatives that improve our public spaces and make San Francisco a more inviting place to be. And by continuing to provide a guiding vision for a BART system that continues to improve its connections to every corner of the Bay Area, his vision of urbanism is helping to permeate communities throughout the region



This sprawling district includes part of southeast San Francisco and extends all the way up the I-80 corridor to the Carquinez Bridge. The incumbent, San Franciscan Lynette Sweet, has been a major disappointment. She’s inaccessible, offers few new ideas, and was slow to recognize (much less deal with) the trigger-happy BART Police who until recently had no civilian oversight. Time for a change.

Three candidates are challenging Sweet, all of them from the East Bay (which makes a certain amount of sense — only 17 percent of the district’s population is in San Francisco). Our choice is Zachary Mallett, whose training in urban planning and understanding of the transit system makes up for his lack of political experience.

Mallett’s a graduate of Stanford and UC Berkelely (masters in urban planning with a transportation emphasis) who has taken the time to study what’s working and what isn’t working at BART. Some of his ideas sound a bit off at first — he wants, for example, to raise the cost of subsidized BART rides offered to Muni pass holders — but when you look a the numbers, and who is subsidizing who, it actually makes some sense. He talks intelligently about the roles that the various regional transit systems play and while he’s a bit more moderate than us, particularly on fiscal issues, he’s the best alternative to Sweet.

Impertinent questions for the PG&E 3 supervisors


Note: The Guardian and I were delighted, after fighting PG&E since 1969 to enforce the public power mandates of the federal Raker Act,  to see the SF Board of Supervisors finally start the process rolling on a veto-proof 8-3 vote. Even the San Francisco Chronicle, after all these decades of opposition to public power, noted in its Monday story by John Cote:

“The move would effectively end Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s decades-long monopoly on the consumer power market in San Francisco, and it would lay the groundwork for the city to generate its own power in the future.

“Public power has long been a goal of major contingent on the city’s political left.  The contract approval comes eight years after the city began setting up a community choice aggregation program, which allows municipalities to choose alternativve energy providers.”

 Two of the PG&E 3 are my supervisors–Sup. Sean Elsbernd and Carmen Chiu. (I live in West Portal in Elsbernd’s district and  a few blocks from Chiu’s Sunset district.) Sup. Mark Farrell was the third PG&E vote.  I  was curious how in 2012,  after PG&E’s misbehavior in the San Bruno blast and after its corporate shenanigans in San Francisco, after all the work that has been done by public power advocates and the  San Francsico Public Utilities Commission on CCA,  could Elsbernd, Chiu and Farrell  vote with PG&E and against public/clean/renewable power. I sent them emails asking some Impertinent Questions. Farrell and Chiu didn’t reply. Elsbernd to his credit did.  Here is the back and forth: . 

B3 to Sup. Elsbernd,

As a constituent, I  am  curious why you voted last week  with PG&E and against clean energy and public power on the PG&E vote and didn’t say anything during the discussion.  I am also curious why, as a neighborhood supervisor, you seem to always vote with the Chamber of Commerce (l00 per cent, according to its last score card) and did so again  on this vote. On what major vote have you differed with the Chamber and PG&E?
I will run your answer on my blog.  Thanks,   b3
Sean to B3

I opposed the proposal because I have a real concern about the potential for a number of our neighbors becoming unwilling customers of this program.  I said nothing because I believe Supervisor Farrell and Chu expressed the point quite well.
Perhaps the biggest issue on which I differed from the Chamber was Proposition A in 2007, the MTA set aside sponsored by Supervisor Peskin.  I played a large role in supporting that measure, while the Chamber opposed it.

I am curious – on what issues has the Bay Guardian differed from SEIU 1021?
B3 to Sean
Thanks, supervisor.  Many issues with the SEIU and labor, and many involving their support of what we call Manhattanization and the over building of projects. The Guardian is friendly to SEIU and labor, but we often differ on endorsements of candidates and propositions, as you can see from Wednesday’s edition.    b3
Sean to B3

Interesting.  I have never seen SEIU 1021 support controversial building proposals; I have, of course seen the Building Trades and other labor support for such construction, just have not see SEIU.  I’ll take your word for it.

B3 to Sean

Thanks, supervisor. I like your idea of the new Goat Hill Pizza in West Portal  bringing us together.

You have always answered my Impertinent Questions. I appreciate it.  I’ll miss you. Good luck. B3

Stop the presses: CleanPowerSF 8, PG&E 3


Sometimes, the good guys (and gals) win.

And so, after the Guardian started the public power movement in 1969  with the pioneering Joe Neilands expose of the PG&E/Raker Act scandal, after three  initiative campaigns to kick PG&E put of City Hall and enforce the public power mandates of the federal Raker Act and bring our own Hetch Hetchy public power to our own people, after hundreds of people worked for years inside and outside City Hall for public power and clean energy,  the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 Tuesday  to formally launch a CleanPowerSF project that would for the first time challenge the decades-old power monopoly of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

It was a historic moment. And it was a historic veto proof vote that Ed Lee, the PG&E- friendly mayor, and his ally and mentor, former mayor Willie Brown, the unregistered $200,000 a year PG&E lobbyist, will have difficulty snuffing out this time around.

The CleanPowerSF 8 were Sups. David Campos, who sponsored the legislation, Scott Weiner, who cast the deciding swing vote, David Chiu, Eric Mar, Christina Olague, Jane Kim, Malia Cohen, and John Avalos, all of whom made helpful remarks during the debate. They also voted down an attempt by the PG&E bloc to continue the vote for a week and voted against crippling amendments.

The PG&E 3 were Sups.Mark Farrell and Carmen Chiu, who tried to dilute the legislation with the crippling amendments, and Sean Elsbernd, who was strangely silent during the debate. 

I use the phrase CleanPowerSF  8 and PG&E 3 to dramatize the crucial political point and toss in a bit of Guardian history on the story.  For years, as clean energy/public power proposals were routinely voted down as a result of PG&E political muscle and power lobbying, the Guardian would use variations of the phrase. PG&E l0, San Francisco l or whatever was the PG&E margin of victory. The phrase was accurate, pin-pointed the good and bad guys and gals, lifted our spirits, and sent the message that the battle was far from over.

The hero of the afternoon was Ed Harrington, the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission who delayed his retirement to complete the project. He got a standing ovation after his testimony backing up his legislation and deft handling of  all questions.  As Campos said, Harrington’s legislation  was as “good as you are going to get.”  No one seriously questioned his plan, figures,  marketing strategy, or key argument that his plan was fiscally and environmentally sound.

PG&E was never mentioned during the discussion and it was difficult to determine its lobbying strategy. After the vote, I asked Eric Brooks, the crafty clean power leader at the meeting,  what happened to PG&E and  its strategy. He said that PG&E, after the San Bruno disaster and other notable mishaps, was not the monopoly power it once was and that perhaps the company had decided it would rather face the slower pace of  CleanPowerSF rather than another clean energy initiative it would have a good chance of losing 

Thanks and congratulations to the CleanPowerSF 8, David Campos, Scott Weiner, John Avalos, David Chiu, Eric Mar, Chritina Olague, Jane Kim, and Malia Cohen, who voted themselves into San Francisco history.  Five of them will face the electorate and PG&E in the November election (Campos, Avalos,  Chiu, Mar, and Olague.) and they acted and spoke as if voting for CleanPowerSF would be a significant advantage to their campaigns in their districts. And thanks and congratulatons to former Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who carried the public power flag as the unpaid campaign manager during the first two unsuccessful public power campaigns and then carried the CCA plan inside City Hall during his seven years as supervisor.  When he was voted in as sheriff last November, he handed the CCA baton to Campos who pushed the proposal through with style and solid argument that the issue was choice and providing necessary competition to PG&E’s monopoly.

The vote to start public power in San Francisco comes none too soon. The tear-down-tne-Hetch Hetchy dam forces have put the nice-sounding Proposition F to study draining the Hetch Hetch reservoir.on the fall ballot. This is the first step toward tearing down the dam.  The problem for the city is that it could ultimately lose the dam, if it isn’t moving to public power, because the Raker Act mandates that San Francisco have a municipal  system to distribute public power to its residents and businesses because the act allowed San Francisco to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. The Guardian’s position is that the dam is in place and  should only be torn down after the city has real public power and is able to find and afford an adequate new source for the city’s water and power supply. And that, let me emphasize,  will be a massive undertaking involving billions of dollars and incredible political challenges.   .

Much more to come in this saga that never ends,  b3

Here is Guardian City Editor  Steve Jones’ account of the vote: :

And some Guardian background on the PG&E/Raker Act Scandal in my advance story:

Historic, veto-proof vote launches CleanPowerSF


The San Francisco Board of Supervisors today cast an historic vote that was more than a decade in the making, approving the CleanPowerSF program – which challenges PG&E’s monopoly by offering 100 percent renewable energy directly to city residents – on an 8-3 vote that would be enough to override an implied veto threat by Mayor Ed Lee.

The outcome was far from certain throughout the two-hour hearing as conservative Sups. Mark Farrell and Carmen Chu led efforts to undermine the program, which was the final work product of retiring San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Executive Director Ed Harrington, who previously served as the city’s controller for 17 years.

The pair of supervisors offered a series of amendments challenging the state requirement that city residents must proactively opt-out of such community choice aggregation (CCA) programs if they want to remain with PG&E, offering convoluted language that would have required people to opt-in to the program before its launch, and requiring that the $13 million in reserve funds from the SFPUC be covered entirely by CleanPowerSF customers, which could increase its rates.

“It looks like the amendments would be harmful to the success of the program,” Sup. Eric Mar observed, prompting Farrell and Chu to flash broad conspiratorial smiles at one another.

Sup. Scott Wiener, who was undecided and considered a key swing vote in reaching a veto-proof majority, said he also had concerns about the opt-out requirement and wanted to better understand how the amendments would work and whether they were legal. “For me, I’m not interested in putting any poison pills in here,” he said.

Wiener posed questions about the amendments to Farrell and to Harrington, who said it was possible for the SFPUC to have CleanPowerSF customers repay the initial allocation of reserve funds over time but that he wasn’t sure how the opt-in change would work without sabotaging the program.

“It harms the ability to have an intelligent conversation with people,” Harrington said, noting that rates are based on the number of customers in the program, so it would be nearly impossible to survey everyone’s potential interest without being able to tell them how their bills would be affected.

As it is, the SFPUC has already done extensive surveys of which neighborhoods and demographics are likely to be interested in taking part in CleanPowerSF, initially paying about $10 more per month for 100 percent renewable energy (PG&E’s portfolio includes less than 30 percent renewable). “We’ve done extensive surveys already,” Harrington said. Based on that research, the city is initially rolling out the program to less than a third of city residents, who will be repeatedly notified about how to opt-out, anticipating about 90,000 customers remain in the initial program. 

The program has been repeatedly tweaked over the last eight years that it’s been in development, during which time Marin County launched a successful version of the CCA concept that was developed in San Francisco by legislators Tom Ammiano, Carole Migden, and Mark Leno.

“I feel pretty comfortable trusting Ed Harrington on whether the numbers add up,” said the measure’s chief sponsor, Sup. David Campos, arguing against the Farrell/Chu amendments, later adding, “With Ed Harrington leading this charge, this is as good as it gets. If you don’t like CCA under Ed Harrington, you’re not going to like CCA.”

Farrell claimed to support CCA in concept, but he strenuously objected to the opt-out requirements that Migden included in the enabling state legislation, which she had argued was the only way to make CCAs viable against PG&E’s proven willingness to spend tens of millions of dollars to sabotage would-be competitors.

“It’s the wrong way to legislate, the opt-out. It smells of coercion,” Farrell said. Campos countered that, “The best thing we can give the consumers in San Francisco is a choice, a meaningful choice.”

Wiener ultimately made a motion to delay the item by a week, something Mayor Lee yesterday told the Chronicle he wanted, in order to further study the opt-out issue, telling Farrell that his amendment “feels a little seat of the pants to me.”

Campos and other progressive supervisors who were supporting CleanPowerSF argued against the continuance, noting that it has been years in development and sitting in board committees since January, while the Farrell/Chu amendments weren’t offered until this meeting had already begun.    

“This is not going to change because we wait a week to make a decision,” Campos said. “The terms of this deal are not going to change.”

The motion for a continuance failed on a 4-7 vote, with Wiener joined by Farrell, Chu, and Sup. Sean Elsbernd (who offered no comments throughout the hearing).

Then, as the vote on the Farrell/Chu opt-in amendment came up for vote, Wiener said, “I don’t feel comfortable voting for amendments that I don’t know what they’ll do,” and it failed on a 3-8 vote.

Sup. Malia Cohen had earlier indicated a willingness to support the other Farrell/Chu amendment: saddling CleanPowerSF customers with paying the SFPUC back for reserve fund costs – which Harrington indicated could be dragged out over many years to minimize the impact on rates, and which might not be necessary at all if the initial program exceeds expectations.

That amendment was then approved on an 8-3 vote, with Sups. Jane Kim, Christina Olague, and John Avalos opposed. Another set of amendments that would keep low-income city residents out of the initial rollout and take other steps to reduce their rates if they opted in – which was developed by Kim, Cohen, and Sup. Eric Mar – was unanimously approved by the board.

Then it was time for the big vote on creating the CleanPowerSF program, approving the contract with Shell Energy Northern California to administer it, and authorizing the initial $19.5 million expenditure. Would there be eight votes to override a veto by Mayor Lee, who has been under pressure by PG&E and their downtown allies to kill the program?

“To be perfectly candid, I struggled mightily with this contract,” Wiener said, reiterating his concern about its opt-in requirement, noting that the measure wasn’t perfect, even though it was significantly improved from earlier versions. It sounded as if he were about to vote against it.

“What we have the opportunity to do is move forward with clean power,” Wiener said, noting that even Marin County supervisors who initially opposed its CCA have come around to supporting it. “This is something I believe we should try.”

And with that, the board voted 8-3 to launch the program in mid-2013, with Chu, Farrell, and Elsbernd opposed.

Campos said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the vote, while key supporters say they are cautiously hopeful it will stand up during next week’s final supervisorial approval on second reading and in a veto override vote, if that becomes necessary. Campos said he was thankful for the work of Harrington, who got a standing ovation after the vote as the board recognized him for his long service to the city.

Earlier in the meeting, Harrington told supervisors that while the program isn’t perfect, and it contains some risks that he considers reasonable, there is no other way the city has identified to meet ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals it has set for itself over the last decade. It is city policy to reduce emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2017 and 80 percent below those levels by 2050.

“This program before you has the only chance of reaching those goals. There’s nothing else,” Harrington said. He also said “it’s an incredibly efficient way to spend money,” noting that the city has spent $90 million on solar and other renewable energy projects that power fewer than 7,000 homes, whereas this $19.5 million will power 90,000 households, possibly without ever tapping into that $13 million reserve fund set aside to cover any losses by Shell, which will buy renewable energy, a role the city hopes to eliminate as it develops its own projects.

Harrington said the ultimate goal of CleanPowerSF is to develop a large enough customer base that the city could use revenue bonds to finance a wide variety of renewable energy projects – many using solar arrays along city-owned property connected to its water system stretching all the way to Hetch Hetchy Valley – that would pay for themselves.

“The real issue is can you build a facility that will have this rate structure support it?” Harrington said.

That’s the real power and potential of CleanPowerSF – finally taking action to address global warming, which will have a huge impact on San Francisco and future generations – as supporters noted in a rally outside City Hall before the meeting. Sen. Mark Leno said that he doesn’t usually weigh in on proposals before the board, but that, “This is an exceptional time and this is an exceptional vote. This is the time that we need to address our inconvenient truth.”

The historic PG&E/clean energy vote today


And so, after a Guardian campaign that started in 1969 to kick PG&E out of City Hall and bring the city’s own Hetch Hetchy public power to San Francisco residents and businesses, the San Francisco Chronicle reported  in Monday’s edition ( 9/17/2012)  that San Francisco “is on the threshold of taking a major step into the public power realm.”

The lead story by John Cote, under a big front page head “Clean power plan would skirt PG&E,”  nicely laid out the CleanPowerSF program and even said that the plan “would effectively break Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s decades-old monopoly on the consumer power market in its headquarters city.”

He quoted Sup. David Campos, sponsor of the legislation, as saying that “This is about giving consumers a choice. And for the choice to be meaningful, it can’t be dependent on one company deciding the energy future of this city.”  The plan goes before the board on Tuesday (9/18/2012) and public power advocates say they have the votes for passage, despite PG&E’s furious lobbying inside and outside City Hall.

What Cote didn’t say, and what the Chronicle has been blacking out for decades, is the crucial point that this clean energy/ public power plan is no ordinary vote on an ordinary issue.  It is an extraordinary vote that would  start the process to enforce the federal Raker Act of 1913 that mandates that San Francisco have a public power system because the city dammed Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park for its cheap public water and cheap public power.  The city got the cheap Hetch Hetchy water, but it never got the cheap Hetch Hetchy power because PG&E stole it and forced the city to buy PG&E’s expensive private power all these years. The cost: billions of dollars for decades to the taxpayers and enduring structural corruption at City Hall. The Guardian has called this PG&E/Raker Act scandal the biggest urban scandal in U.S. history. It still is.

It’s quite a story and I urge you to check out the hundreds of investigations, stories, editorials, cartoons, and graphics the Guardian has used for years to illuminate the scandal and fight to enforce  the Raker Ac t and bring our own Hetch Hetchy power to our own people in San Francisco.

Buried in the Cote story is a key political point: Mayor Ed Lee, the man who became interim mayor on a phony premise and then lied his way into a full term as mayor, reiterated his “concerns” through a spokesperson that he is, gosh, golly, gee, “concerned about the opt-out provisions, the risks associated with the contract and the cost to residents.”

Marvelous. Simply marvelous. Lee is once again enunciating the PG&E line that mayors before him, notably Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, have used to keep City Hall safe for PG&E and undercut the threat of public power coming to San Francisco and disturbing PG&E’s questionably legal monopoly. Brown, let me emphasize, was under PG&E’s thumb before, during, and after his mayoral tenure and now operates as an unregistered, $200,000-a -year PG&E lobbyist, Chronicle columnist, and key Lee confidant  and ally.

The current public power proposal isn’t as strong as the three public power initiatives that PG&E spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat.  PG&E would still own the lines and network, handle maintenance, and send out the bills.

But the proposal would provide l00 per cent renewable power to residents who want to pay a bit more for it, build a customer base and revenue stream for city-owned renewable power generation, advance the city’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals, and set aside $2 million to study public power options.  Most important, it would be a helluva good first step toward enforcing the public power provisions of the Raker Act and kicking PG&E out of City Hall.

The supervisors and Lee should approve the legislation and move it forward vigorously and without delay.

This is a historic moment and a historic vote in San Francisco history.  The question is, who is going to be on the right side of history and who is going to be on the wrong side of history with a PG&E vote that will live in infamy?  B3

P.S. A tip of the clean energy hat to Ed Harrington, who successfully wrestled  the proposal through the sea of crocodiles and hippos at City Hall.  He delayed his retirement as general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to finish up the proposal.  “This is the single biggest program that is even on the  horizon within the city and county of San Francisco to make any difference toward any of the goals that you have set as board members in terms of having a change in greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in San Francisco,” he told the supervisors’ budget committee last week as reported by Cote.  “This program can make a dramatic change.”  

And a tip of the clean energy hat to Sup. Campos, who put the proposal forward up against  fortress PG&E,  More: a tip of the clean energy hat and a  bow to all the many public power advocates who have fought for years to bring clean energy and public power out of the wilderness and to this position. Furthermore, I salute  Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who led the first  two public power initiative campaigns as the unpaid manager and then took on the herculean job of orchestrating the clean energy/cca proposal inside City Hall .when he became a supervisor. Mirkarimi is now paying the price for, among other things, successfully taking on PG&E and the PG&E establishment. His was an enormously courageous and important public service.  On guard,   B3


Committee approves CleanPowerSF over downtown opposition


The question of whether San Francisco creates a renewable energy program that offers an alternative to Pacific Gas & Electric got its first major hearing at City Hall today, with the business community claiming it’s too expensive and supporters arguing that the time has come for the city to address climate change and the long-term energy needs of city residents and businesses.

The Board of Supervisors Budget & Finance Committee voted 2-1 in favor creating CleanPowerSF, entering into a contract with Shell Energy Northern California to administer the program, and devoting $19.5 million from the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s water fund to help launch it and buy clean power for city residents.

Sups. John Avalos and Jane Kim supported the project, while Sup. Carmen Chu was opposed. It now goes to the full Board of Supervisors next week, where it is expected to have progressive support and be opposed by the fiscal conservatives.

“I do think we will have the necessary majority to get this through,” the measure’s sponsor, Sup. David Campos, told us. But one open question is whether Mayor Ed Lee will veto a measure that his SFPUC appointees developed but his downtown allies are trying to kill, and if so, whether there are eight supervisors willing to override a veto.

But Campos noted that SFPUC officials testified today that CleanPowerSF is the only way they’ve identified to meet the city’s ambitious official goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which call for a reduction of 20 percent below 1990 levels by the end of this year and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

Supporters who testified today included environmentalists, progressive groups, and young people who cast addressing climate change as the defining struggle of their generation. “This, not to go overboard, is the most important vote you’ll ever do,” said the Sierra Club’s Arthur Feinstein.

Those who spoke against the program included the usual array of downtown groups that have traditionally defended PG&E’s interests – including the Committee on Jobs, Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and Plan C – and they were joined by an unusually large number of elderly Asian individuals wearing stickers opposing the project.

“It’s a bad program that doesn’t meet even the basic elements of its original promise,” said Chris Wright, executive director of the Committee on Jobs, which PG&E has helped fund since its inception. Like most CleanPowerSF opponents, they have long opposed even the concept of community choice aggregation (CCA), the state law that allowed the city to create CleanPowerSF.

PG&E’s longtime support by local politicians has eroded in recent years because of its overkill campaigns against public power initiatives and supporters and its negligence in the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

Even GGRA Executive Director Rob Black told the committee, “PG&E, a local company, candidly has its problems.” But he and other project opponents – and even a few supporters of the project – centered much of their opposition on the involvement of Shell, which has a bad reputation and environmental record, like almost every other multinational energy company.

“I have the same qualms about Shell that everyone else does,” said Katherine Roberts, who said that she nonetheless supports the project, calling it the only way for most San Franciscans to directly support the development of renewable energy sources. Shell was the sole bidder on a project that requires enormous financial wherewithal.

Campos calls the focus on Shell a diversionary tactic: “PG&E already buys energy from Shell. To the extent people don’t want Shell in the picture, Shell is already in the picture.”

Both the supervisors and the mayor will be under intense pressure to derail CleanPowerSF, with that campaign led by downtown groups and IBEW Local 1245, the union that represents PG&E workers. Sup. Scott Wiener, who says he’s still undecided, told us that his office was flooded with phone calls today, mostly in opposition to the project.

PG&E union mounts attack on Clean Power SF


The union that represents PG&E workers — and has opposed every single public-power initiative in modern San Francisco history — just launched an attack on Clean Power SF. And the union’s business representative is having a hard time explaining exactly why he’s working with PG&E to try to undermine this modest step toward public power.

Hunter Stern, with IBEW Local 1245, sent a press release out Sept. 11 announcing the start of a campaign to convince the supervisors not to approve the Clean Power SF plan. The line of attack: Shell Energy, which got the contract to supply sustainable energy to customers in the city, in competition with PG&E. The pitch:

San Francisco city government is considering a proposal to partner with Shell Energy of North America to inaugurate SF’s so-called “clean power” program. If the Board of Supervisors approves the proposal, San Francisco would pay millions to Shell, one of the most notorious environmental violators in business today.

Shell’s a pretty bad company. So is PG&E. So is just about everyone in the energy business. Not justifying Shell’s behavior, just noting: If you want a contractor to deliver electricty to San Francisco, you aren’t going to get a cool independent small business. You aren’t even going to get Google. These folks are evil, all of them.

Oh, and by the way: Shell Energy also sells power to PG&E (pdf). Stern’s boss has a contract similar to what the city is going to get. So the PG&E power we all pay for today is in part Shell power. And as Sup. David Campos points out, it wasn’t as if the city chose Shell over some better competitors: There was no other company out there anywhere in the world that responded to the city’s bid process and offered to work with Clean Power SF.

The key point here is that Clean Power SF is going to use Shell as a bridge — the private outfit will deliver power generated at renewable facililities to the city’s power operation, which will resell it to customers … for a while. The goal is to use the revenue stream from the sales of power to back bonds that will allow the city to build its own renewable energy system. Five, maybe ten years down the road, San Francisco will have solar generators on city property (including large swaths of Public Utilities Commission property in the East Bay), wind generators, maybe at some point tidal generators, and will be able to sell cheap, clean, local power to customers. Shell will be gone.

Let’s face it: this is a step on the path to creating a city-owned and city-run power system — that is, a step to eliminating PG&E as a player in San Francisco’s energy future. Public power will be cheaper and cleaner — and it’s going to take a while to get there. Which is why we need to start now.

PG&E knows this, too, and is fighting to block Clean Power SF, which comes before the board’s Budget and Finance Committee Sept. 12. Now IBEW is allied, as usual, with the giant company.

The Stern press release talks about how Clean Power SF will be expensive:

The average home can expect to see a rate increase of 77% over their current PG&E electricity generation rates. That comes out to an increase of over $200 per year.  The higher cost of power would eat up more and more of the City budget, forcing service reductions and costing San Francisco vitally needed jobs. Our local economy would take a multi-million dollar hit.

Actually, not true: The only people who will pay for Clean Power SF are the ones who want it. The idea is that a significant number of San Franciscans will be willing to pay a little more — maybe $10 a month — to help save the planet. The ones who want to stick with PG&E wil have every opportunity to do so. The city budget isn’t taking a hit — municipal services already use the city’s Hetch Hetchy hydropower. This doesn’t cost the city money or jobs.

It will, of course, hurt PG&E.

I called Hunter Stern to talk about all of this, and we had a long conversation. He was polite and answered all of my questions. Sort of.

He insisted that IBEW isn’t against community choice aggregation, that he’s only worried about the city budget and the impacts on ratepayers. And Shell. So we started going around in circles, like this:

Me: So you don’t oppose Clean Power SF?

Stern: We are not opposed to community choice aggregation. Just to this contract with Shell.

Me: I’m told Shell is the only contractor willing to fulfill this role.

Stern: That’s what I’m told, too.

Me: So if you support CCA, what should the city do?

Stern: Find somebody else.

Me: The city has made it clear there IS nobody else.

Stern: We should put this on hold and wait around until there is.

Me: Why is IBEW unhappy with Shell?

Stern: This is contracting out.

Me: Is Shell Energy a nonunion company?

Stern: They don’t generate power, they just buy and sell, so they don’t really have any employees who could be in IBEW.

Me: So what if they city can use this revenue to build its own renewables, with union labor?

Stern: We aren’t opposed to the city building its own renewables.

Me: But the idea here is to use the revenue stream from Clean Power SF to raise money for local renewables.

Stern: You don’t need revenue to build local renewables. Just creativity.

Me: But the city has a huge budget problem now. There’s no money to build local generation unless you have a revenue stream to bond against.

Stern: There are creative ways to do it.

Me: So you support CCA. You support building local renewables.Clean Power SF is a CCA program to build local renewables. Shell is the only company that answered the city’s call for bids for this project. You don’t have any labor issues with Shell. I don’t understand where you’re coming from.

Stern: I don’t disagree with your checklist.

Me: So why are you against this project?

Stern: We don’t think this is good for the city or for the ratepayers.

Me: But the ratepayers don’t have to be a part of it if they don’t want to.

Stern: I think the way the city is approaching that is a good strategy.

Round and round and round. It was making my head hurt. I wish I’d put it on tape so you could all listen.

I passed the press release along to Tyrone Jue at the SFPUC. He had a pretty clear response:

This attack is not surprising. IBEW is one of the largest unions at PG&E. They historically side with PG&E on all their issues. The fact is CleanPowerSF will not cost IBEW workers jobs. Ironically, the local renewable build out phase will be creating even more green union jobs. This happens while we weaning ourselves off dirty fossil fuel sources.San Franciscans want the choice to embrace a clean energy future. While PG&E shareholders stand to lose with CleanPowerSF, the consumer and environment stand to win.

He added:

Our ‘little creativity’ involves reinvesting revenue into aggressive energy efficiency and local renewable generation projects.  We’re simply not motivated to maximize profit at the expense of our customers or the environment.   Our common sense goal is to reinvest revenue into real projects that will reduce San Francisco’s carbon footprint, create local jobs, and build a sustainable energy future that is better for the environment and our customers.

Ugh. This is going to be a battle royal. I hope there are six votes on the board for Clean Power SF, which is imperfect but important. And then Mayor Lee will have to decide whether to side with his highly respected SFPUC general manager, Ed Harrington, who wants to make this happen, and PG&E, which doesn’t.

Oh, by the way: PG&E pays Willie Brown about $250,000 a year as a “legal retainer.” And I hear the mayor takes his phone calls.

Approve clean power SF


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SFPUC’s cool new building


I finallly got a tour of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s cool new building at 525 Golden Gate. It’s about as green as an urban building can be, with solar panels, wind turbines, a wastewater recycling system using the underground root structure of street gardens to clean sewage … the energy use is about 30 percent below a typical building that size, and water use is even lower; the PUC projects about a 60 percent savings, which is a good thing for a water agency that wants to promote conservation. So far, it’s gotten pretty good press.

For a 13-story office building done in a very modern style (not my favorite type of structure), it looks pretty cool, too, with polycarbonate panels that wave in the wind and light up at night. Inside, it’s open and full of light. There’s lots of space for bicycles and an on-site child-care center.

There’s also $4 million worth of public art — most of it purchased or commissioned from local artists. I love the painting and photos, and the cafe on the first floor has a pretty wild giant computerized display that shows the entire water and power system, with interactive popups as you approach different areas.


I was a little disappointed that Ed Harrington, the SFPUC general manager, and Barbara Hale, the assistant general manager for power enterprise, had no idea why the power lines from the city’s hydroelectric facilities in the Sierra end in Fremont, where the city’s power gets plugged into the Pacific Gas and Electric system. “I’ve never heard that story,” Hale said. You’d think that I’d written enough about that tale; you’d think P&E’s role in denying the city its legal right to public power would be part of the official history of the Hetch Hetchy system.

But I forgive them; the story is long and complicated, and very rarely told or taught in San Francisco, which has been scrambling for more than 80 years to duck the Congressional mandate that should force us to kick out PG&E. Because here’s the thing: As he heads for retirement, I think Harrington now gets it.

We sat and talked on the top floor of his new building, in an oddly-shaped conference room with a stunning view, and I got the distinct impression that Harrington and Hale want to move the city toward public ownership of the local electrical system. They’re pushing Clean Power SF, which is a critical step down the path to energy independence; Harrington wants this to be part of his legacy. He’s careful not to say anything that sounds like he wants to fully replace PG&E and create a fully municipalized electric utility in San Francisco, but he can’t ignore the facts: The only way this city is going to get to a sustainable energy future is if we own the infrastructure.

Of course, even if we started today, that would happen long after Harrington’s tenure is over.

But when we talked about the city’s water system, he noted that there are all sorts of important policy decisions that we have only been able to make becuase we own the entire system, soup to nuts, water storage, pipes, delivery. And he didn’t try to argue with me when I said that the same clearly applies to power.

Harrington has made his peace with the energy activists who want to make sure that part of the Clean Power SF program involves buidling our own generation facilities. Even with a full build-out of solar and wind on all the land the city has access to, and with the Hetchy Hetchy hydro system, a municipal utility could probably only generate about 40 percent of the city’s current needs. But knock the current needs down by 20 percent (through better efficiency and conservation) and get every homeowner and commercial building to put solar on the roof, and look at wave energy down the road … and it’s not hard to imagine that 25 years from now San Francisco would have no need to buy electricity from PG&E, Shell Energy, or anyone else.

I know, I know, that’s a long time from now. But I wrote my first story about PG&E in 1982. If we’d started back then, we’d be well on our way by now.

So here’s to hoping that this slick $200 million building is the start of a new era for SF’s PUC, which in the past has been openly hostile to public power. Let’s hope that when I’m 80 years old I can write my last PG&E/Raker Act story and move on to something else.


Parting gift


Retirement is knocking at Ed Harrington’s door. But the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission general manager is hesitating, not quite able to muster the will needed to walk out the door. He has something that he wants to finish first.

The sage city veteran has labored for years to launch an historic program so transformative that it would finally allow city residents and businesses to reject a homicidal utility monopoly and the dirty electricity that it sells. Success could be mere weeks away; failure would be a bitter blow.

Twice in the past 27 months, Harrington and his staff have fumbled efforts to launch the city’s long-promised community choice aggregation (CCA) program. The program, CleanPowerSF, would give Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) customers the option of switching over to a publicly backed electricity provider selling green, climate-friendly power.

The energy would continue to be ferried into homes and other buildings over PG&E’s electrical grid, and customers who switch would continue to receive their bills from PG&E. Those gas and electricity bills could initially swell by an average of one quarter, but the mix of power that they pay for would jump from 20 percent renewable up to 100 percent renewable.

Harrington’s previous CleanPowerSF launch schemes collapsed in mid-2010 and again early last year without getting off of the ground, largely because nobody — neither the city nor private industry — would shoulder the large financial risks. Unlike those failed efforts, which would have offered a private company virtual carte blanche to sell power to as many PG&E customers as possible, the latest CCA proposal resembles a successful program operating in Marin County. The Marin program started small in early 2010 and is already growing at a rapid clip as it pursues true energy independence.

For the next few weeks, despite having previously planned to retire in August, Harrington will oversee a last-ditch effort to drive approval of his latest iteration of CleanPowerSF by the Board of Supervisors. “I’ve offered to stay into September so that we can have the CCA discussions at the board,” Harrington told the Bay Guardian.

Harrington declined to discuss the latest version of CleanPowerSF, the real and perceived financial risks of which will be hashed out by the Budget and Finance Committee, referring questions to a spokesperson.

But environmentalists and local “green jobs” advocates who just 12 months ago were panning CleanPowerSF, ready to block its passage through the board, are now lauding it. They say the change came about after Harrington met directly with them and seemingly changed his own mind about how the program should be run.

The program would initially see Shell Corp. sell 20 to 30 megawatts of renewable electricity generated in far-flung places to fewer than 100,000 residential customers. Instead of fostering new supplies of renewable energy, San Francisco residents may initially buy power at premium prices from existing wind, solar, and other green facilities. That might make San Franciscans feel warm and fuzzy, but it wouldn’t necessarily reduce the nation’s overall carbon footprint.

The activists agree that it’s a crying shame to get into bed with an evil multinational oil company. But they say it’s an acceptable start, as long as the program evolves into something far more meaningful — into something resembling the Marin Clean Energy model. Like in Marin, the activists want San Francisco to use CleanPowerSF revenues to help build its own solar, wind, and other renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, many of them right here in city limits. They want the city to sell those power and the energy efficiency gains directly to CleanPowerSF customers.

Over the coming years, the SFPUC could gradually add enough clean electricity at competitive rates into the CleanPowerSF mix, generated by its own facilities and purchased off the open energy market, to meet the needs of all the city’s residents and businesses.

The build-out of solar power plants and other renewable energy facilities has always been imagined as an integral element of CleanPowerSF. But until last October, critics say SFPUC officials were treating the build-out as an afterthought, making little effort to lock in plans to move forward with the construction as a structured part of a CCA program.

“The SFPUC staff decided they wanted to do this the easy way and just buy energy,” said Eric Brooks, a regular at City Hall hearings who chairs the San Francisco Green Party’s sustainability committee and has spent years working with the SFPUC on CleanPowerSF. “They wanted to do that because it was easy — you can just declare victory.”

Once the general manager started to meet directly with local activists, Brooks says, “Harrington started hearing what we had been saying to the staff for all these years about how important the build-out is.” Harrington began to understand the importance of a renewable energy build-out that begins as soon as the new program launches. In turn, the activists threw their support behind Harrington and the program.

Brooks said that the build-out of city-owned renewable energy facilities could create thousands of jobs. It could also lead to energy independence in a city where environmentalism is a badge of honor, but where PG&E continues to sell nuclear and polluting fossil fuel energy without facing any competition.

“This is the perfect solution to the climate crisis and the economic crisis,” Brooks said. “We need to create a green New Deal. That’s the depth of crisis that we’re in, economically and environmentally.”

Such a build-out is also expected to build support for the program at the Board of Supervisors. Without it, the City Controller’s Office calculated that the city’s economy could take a hit to the tune of $8 million over five years after CleanPowerSF launches in the spring in additional electricity expenses, potentially jeopardizing about 100 jobs. But that analysis failed to consider the thousands of jobs that could be created laying panels, installing turbines, and performing other tasks if the city develops its own renewable energy supplies as a part of the program.

It’s impossible right now to say precisely what type of renewable energy facilities would be built by San Francisco: A $2 million study that would paint that picture is planned. But Paul Fenn, president of Local Power Inc., which is helping the SFPUC prepare to call for bids from companies interested in building the facilities, said they could include everything from solar panel arrays to customers’ energy efficiency gains to a wave energy plant.

The first CleanPowerSF committee hearing is scheduled Sept. 12, followed at some point thereafter by an historic board vote that will almost certainly prove contentious, likely pitting the board’s progressive members who have long supported public power against some of its fiscal conservatives.

Much of the debate will focus on an initial $19.5 million investment by the city. Of that money, about one-third would be used as collateral — a pool of cash held in escrow and available to reimburse Shell if the program flops. SFPUC spokesperson Charles Sheehan said the $7 million in collateral would gradually be recouped by San Francisco if the program moves forward successfully.

Another $2 million would fund CleanPowerSF customers’ energy efficiency programs; $2 million would help customers install solar panels; and $2 million would be spent on the study to determine how best to build out the portfolio of renewable energy plants owned by San Francisco. The rest of the money would cover operating and startup expenses, and it could be recouped later through power sales.

In a town where PG&E wields tremendous political and financial influence, proposing to gamble public funds establishing a competitor to the company is always sure to be thoroughly scrutinized, if not outright opposed and criticized. Supporters of the program, however, say that the gamble is a safe and necessary one that could have sweeping workforce and economic benefits.

“I don’t think that we can afford not to do CCA,” said Sup. David Campos, the program’s most active supporter on the Board of Supervisors. “So long as something like CCA is not in place, PG&E will continue to be the only game in town. I think it’s important for us to give consumers in San Francisco an alternative to PG&E.”

CleanPowerSF has long suffered an identity crisis that has harmed its prospects of legislative approval. Opponents deride it as a public power scheme and they work on behalf of PG&E to quash it. But ardent public power supporters do not see it that way: They consider CleanPowerSF to be little more than a minor stepping stone toward public power, and they have not rallied around it nearly as much as they have rallied around some of the storied yet unsuccessful public power campaigns of years past.

If Harrington can clinch lawmaker approval for CleanPowerSF before he retires, he will have provided city residents with a lasting choice in what kind of electricity they buy.

“I think that any effort to compete with PG&E is seen as public power,” Campos said. “But this is really about providing a choice.”


Restore Hetch Hetchy conjures corporate boogiemen


The campaign for a ballot measure that seeks to create a plan for tearing down the O’Shaughnessy Dam – San Francisco’s main source of clean water and power – and turning the Hetch Hetchy Valley into a tourist destination must be having a hard time collecting the 9,702 signatures it needs by July 9 because it is resorting to conjuring up unlikely boogiemen to win public sympathy.

Restore Hetch Hetchy just sent out a press release accusing opponents of the measure of preparing a “tobacco industry-style negative ad blitz” funded by venture capitalist Ron Conway and other corporate evildoers.

“Just like the tobacco industry’s big money confused so many people into opposing the Prop. 29 tobacco tax they initially supported, now we’re seeing corporate money flowing like a dirty river right into the coffers of what promises to be yet another nasty negative campaign,” said Mike Marshall, campaign director for the Yosemite Restoration Campaign, which his Restore Hetch Hetchy group is sponsoring.

It cites a statement made by the Bay Area Council – which they helpfully remind us includes “PG&E, Chevron, and Mitt Romney’s former company Bain & Co.” – that Conway has pledged $25,000 to the opposition campaign.

Where do I even begin to unravel this ridiculously hyperbolic and misleading appeal? Let’s start with the fact this has nothing to do with Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Capitalists, or Big Utilities. It isn’t corporations that are standing in the way of spending billions of dollars to tear down the dam and replace the lost power and water – it is just about every elected official in the region, from across the political spectrum, and any San Franciscan who has at least as much reason and sentimentality. As for PG&E, I’m sure the utility would just love to see San Francisco’s main source of electricity torn down, which would only expand its monopolistic control of our energy system.

Frankly, the misleading release reeks of desperation, and when I asked campaign consultant Jon Golinger whether the campaign is in trouble, he responded, “We are certainly quite clear this is a David versus Goliath situation, or whatever analogy you want to make.”

Okay, how about a Fantasy versus Reality situation? Or a Past versus Present situation? Or San Franciscans versus Dan Lungren, the right wing member of Congress who has been pushing to remove the dam supposedly because he loves Yosemite Valley so much and wants to create another one (or, more likely, because he wants to tweak the San Francisco liberals and get us fighting among ourselves over something pointless and distracting).

I’m sorry, but I just can’t get my head around the appeal of this idea, which the Sacramento Bee editorial writers actually won a Pulitzer Prize for conjuring up in 2004, certainly another sign of the modern decline in journalism standards. I get that legendary conservationist John Muir was right and this dam probably shouldn’t have been built, and that it might be kinda cool to have another beautiful valley to hike in once the sludge dries up over a few decades.

But when we can’t even find adequate funding for public transit, renewable energy sources, and the multitude of other things that really would help the environment – not to mention while we’re heading into an era when water supplies in the Sierras could be depleted by climate change – do we really want to spend billions of dollars to fetishize one valley and destroy the engineering marvel that is one of the best and most energy-efficient sources of urban water in the country?

Or am I just shilling for Big Tobacco and Mitt Romney because that’s how I see it?

Two clean energy tracks for SF


OPINION CleanPowerSF, San Francisco’s green electricity alternative to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., is set to launch this year. The program is following two parallel paths — one to build renewable energy in San Francisco and create thousands of local jobs, the other to purchase clean power from remote sources from Shell Energy.

While both tracks bring advantages, this bifurcated approach could end up serving only 30 percent of city residents. Fortunately, the city can easily improve the launch of CleanPowerSF by merging the two tracks.

Enacted by the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 and in 2007, CleanPowerSF is not a public-power program like Santa Clara’s Silicon Valley Power or Alameda Municipal Power. CleanPowerSF is a public-private partnership, much like the successful Marin Clean Energy, which can buy power in bulk from outside companies — and also generate its own renewable energy. PG&E still owns the transmission grid and will deliver electricity to customers, who then have the option of choosing between CleanPowerSF and PG&E.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has embarked on a detailed analysis of PG&E electricity data to find out how much electricity is used in different parts of the city at different times of the day and how much it costs. That will pinpoint exactly where in San Francisco renewable energy should be built for the highest efficiency and lowest costs to ratepayers.

While this analysis is being conducted, the SFPUC plans to initiate the second track, offering ratepayers 100% renewable electricity purchased from Shell Energy North America. That will get CleanPowerSF up and running quickly — but would cost ratepayers between $6.70 and $54.50 more a month more than PG&E. As a result, the SFPUC estimates that as many as 70% of ratepayers could leave CleanPowerSF and go back to PG&E.

The SF PUC plans to offer CleanPowerSF to two-thirds of San Francisco customers — 230,000 residences — with as many as 155,000 opting out. Once these people opt out, they won’t be customers of the cheaper, locally produced, job-creating, green energy that will come later.

By comparison, only 20 percent of Marin Clean Energy customers opted out at initial rollout. That’s because Marin Clean Energy offers a 27 percent renewable energy option in addition to a higher-cost 100 percent green option. The “light-green” option is cheaper because it mixes in lower-cost, non-renewable electricity.

The PUC could keep more San Franciscans in CleanPowerSF by integrating the local generation and data analysis and purchasing tracks. First, it could include a cheaper light-green option like Marin’s. To determine what mix of renewable and non-renewable electricity would be cost-competitive with PG&E, the PUC would use the results from the first track, the analysis of electricity usage data, expected this spring. The Board of Supervisors could make these changes when it takes up the Shell contract this month or next.

In the past few months, CleanPowerSF has made much progress thanks to San Francisco Supervisor David Campos and Ed Harrington, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The addition of a cost-competitive light-green option would enable CleanPowerSF to better compete with PG&E and keep more San Franciscans in the program — for the long term. That would significantly increase the number of new local jobs created and have a greater effect in fighting global climate change. It worked in Marin, and it can work in San Francisco as well..

John Rizzo is former chair of the Sierra Club Bay Area Chapter and current president of the San Francisco Community College Board


Making CleanPowerSF work


EDITORIAL The way the San Francisco Chronicle describes it, the city’s new green power program “won’t come cheap.” That’s a line that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. will use over and over again in the next few months as the city finally prepares to get into the retail electricity business, 98 years after Congress mandated public power for San Francisco. Clean Power SF will offer 100 percent clean energy — and yes, right now, this spring, it will cost a little bit more than buying nuclear and coal power from PG&E.

But that price differential will change dramatically in the next few years — if the city goes forward not just with buying and aggregating power from the commercial market but developing renewable energy on its own.

That’s the key to the future of CleanPowerSF — and as a proposed contract to get the system up and running comes to the Board of Supervisors, the need for a city build-out of at least 210 megawatts of energy generation capacity is, and must be, an essential part of the plan.

The fact that the city, at long last, is moving toward implementing this program is a testament to the work of Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who pushed it for years, and Sup. David Campos, who more recently took over the lead role. Both deserve immense credit for their work.

As Rebecca Bowe reports in this week’s issue, there’s some disagreement about the contract proposed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The deal with Shell Energy North America would have the energy giant buy green power wherever it can, deliver it to San Francisco customers along PG&E’s lines — and charge enough to pay for the power and overhead expenses. That, initial reports say, could raise the bill of an average customer somewhere between $7 and $50 a month, depending on use. For most residential customers, the increase is going to be on the low end.

The problem is that the PUC estimates from the start that two-thirds of the potential customers will drop out of the program and stick with PG&E. That’s an abysmal projection, reflecting in part the PUC’s long reluctance to take the program seriously, in part a failure to plan an aggressive marketing campaign — and in part the lack of a long-term vision for the program.

The bottom line is simple: As long as the city is buying energy from somebody else, there are going to be problems. Right now, renewable energy demand exceeds supply, so prices are high. That’s going to fluctuate over the next decade.

But it’s entirely possible for the city to build its own renewable infrastructure and generate power that will beat PG&E’s prices in the short-term future — and will be far, far less expensive a decade down the road. Clean Power SF will never work to its full potential unless the city owns a significant part of the generation system. (Ultimately, the city will never see the full economic benefits of public power until it buys out PG&E or builds its own delivery system.)

The PUC included — at the demand of public-power advocates — a clause in the contract stating that a city build-out was part of the plan. The proposal before the board only includes the contract with Shell — but the final deal should include specific plans for how much local power will be generated, how it will be funded — and how it will ultimately replace the power Shell is providing. The city should start right now looking for sites (there’s lots of surplus city land) and seeking bids for construction, and if the PUC can’t come up with enough revenue-bonding money, the board should put a comprehensive clean energy bond on the November ballot.

The Local Clean Energy Alliance estimates that building 210 megawatts of clean power in San Francisco would generate nearly 1,000 direct jobs and as many as 4,300 indirect jobs. That sort of program would be a boost to the economy and guarantee the city stable energy sources for the future. And it would allow the PUC to market Clean Power SF not as a plan that will cost consumers more today — but as a plan that the city can all-but guarantee will save you money, substantial amounts of money, over the next 10 years.

Guardian editorial: Making Clean Power SF work


EDITORIAL The way the San Francisco Chronicle describes it, the city’s new green power program “won’t come cheap.” That’s a line that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. will use over and over again in the next few months as the city finally prepares to get into the retail electricity business, 98 years after Congress mandated public power for San Francisco. Clean Power SF will offer 100 percent clean energy — and yes, right now, this spring, it will cost a little bit more than buying nuclear and coal power from PG&E.

But that price differential will change dramatically in the next few years — if the city goes forward not just with buying and aggregating power from the commercial market but developing renewable energy on its own.

That’s the key to the future of Clean Power SF — and as a proposed contract to get the system up and running comes to the Board of Supervisors, the need for a city build-out of at least 210 megawatts of energy generation capacity is, and must be, an essential part of the plan.

As Rebecca Bowe reports in the Guardian, there’s some disagreement about the contract proposed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The deal with Shell Energy North America would have the energy giant buy green power wherever it can, deliver it to San Francisco customers along PG&E’s lines — and charge enough to pay for the power and overhead expenses. That, initial reports say, could raise the bill of an average customer somewhere between $7 and $50 a month, depending on use. For most residential customers, the increase is going to be on the low end.

The problem is that the PUC estimates from the start that two-thirds of the potential customers will drop out of the program and stick with PG&E. That’s an abysmal projection, reflecting in part the PUC’s long reluctance to take the program seriously, in part a failure to plan an aggressive marketing campaign — and in part the lack of a long-term vision for the program.

The bottom line is simple: As long as the city is buying energy from somebody else, there are going to be problems. Right now, renewable energy demand exceeds supply, so prices are high. That’s going to fluctuate over the next decade.

But it’s entirely possible for the city to build its own renewable infrastructure and generate power that will beat PG&E’s prices in the short-term future — and will be far, far less expensive a decade down the road. Clean Power SF will never work to its full potential unless the city owns a significant part of the generation system. (Ultimately, the city will never see the full economic benefits of public power until it buys out PG&E or builds its own delivery system.)

The PUC included — at the demand of public-power advocates — a clause in the contract stating that a city build-out was part of the plan. The proposal before the board only includes the contract with Shell — but the final deal should include specific plans for how much local power will be generated, how it will be funded — and how it will ultimately replace the power Shell is providing. The city should start right now looking for sites (there’s lots of surplus city land) and seeking bids for construction, and if the PUC can’t come up with enough revenue-bonding money, the board should put a comprehensive clean energy bond on the November ballot.

The Local Clean Energy Alliance estimates that building 210 megawatts of clean power in San Francisco would generate nearly 1,000 direct jobs and as many as 4,300 indirect jobs. That sort of program would be a boost to the economy and guarantee the city stable energy sources for the future. And it would allow the PUC to market Clean Power SF not as a plan that will cost consumers more today — but as a plan that the city can all-but guarantee will save you money, substantial amounts of money, over the next ten years.