Public Power

Clean energy and better infrastructure: a great combination


OPINION Achieving a more sustainable San Francisco means a city running on clean power. It also means maintaining our infrastructure to keep San Francisco functioning.

Right now, our city can do better on both fronts, and legislation we are sponsoring will help move us in the right direction by increasing our use of clean, hydroelectric power while generating more revenue for infrastructure investment in our streetlight and power systems.

San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy power system produces a massive amount of clean, hydroelectric power, yet our city uses very little of this energy despite our stated goal of moving toward 100 percent clean power by 2030. Moreover, the operator of this power system, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC), has massive unmet infrastructure needs. Our streetlights, most of which are owned by the PUC, are badly in need of upgrade, and PUC’s power delivery system has almost a billion dollars in deferred maintenance.

To address these challenges, we are authoring legislation to bring more revenue-generating, clean power to San Francisco.

For over 100 years, the PUC has provided 100 percent clean, hydroelectric power to municipal agencies, including Muni, the San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco General Hospital, police and fire stations, libraries, and our public schools. Using this clean public power saves taxpayers millions versus what we would pay if we were to purchase PG&E power. Hetch Hetchy generates 1.43 million megawatt hours of clean power a year and is 100 percent greenhouse-gas free. This is a tremendous asset, but it has been underutilized.

Any excess public power that the PUC generates and doesn’t use for governmental customers is now sold on the wholesale market at a significantly reduced rate. Retail rates are around four times higher than wholesale rates. This means that with every megawatt sold at wholesale rates, the PUC is losing out on significant revenue to address its aging infrastructure needs.

If the PUC obtains more customers paying retail rates, we can generate more revenue to upgrade and improve our failing streetlight system and address the power system’s massive deferred capital needs. The PUC estimates that for every 10 megawatts sold to new retail customers — rather than selling that power on the wholesale market — we will see a net revenue increase of $4 million per year.

That is why we are sponsoring legislation to bring the PUC more retail customers and hence more infrastructure investment. The legislation provides the PUC with the right of first refusal to be the power provider for new development projects in San Francisco, including large private projects. This will allow the PUC to determine if it feasibly can serve as the power provider for these new developments, and in doing so expand the agency’s retail customer base.

Allowing the PUC the flexibility to add retail customers will move us toward a more financially sustainable public power system, while providing 100 percent greenhouse-gas free power to our city and generating significant resources for infrastructure investment, including for our streetlight system.

Some have raised questions about what this legislation means for the future of CleanPowerSF, our previously approved clean energy program that has been stalled by the PUC Commission’s refusal to set rates. These two public power measures are not in any way mutually exclusive, and both can move forward. We are both supporters of CleanPowerSF, and we want it to succeed.

We know the PUC can provide reliable, greenhouse-gas-free power that works for its customers. Anyone who disagrees can just look at San Francisco International Airport. If the PUC can reliably provide power to serve one of the most significant airports in the world, powering new housing and commercial developments won’t be a problem.

A sustainable, clean energy future requires a broad range of solutions. This proposal is one that will deliver our city more clean power and make our power enterprise stronger by redirecting energy revenues back into the system. Let’s put our clean power to work for San Francisco.

Scott Wiener and London Breed are members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Clean Power SF still moving forward


Dec. 19 marked the 100th anniversary of the Raker Act, federal legislation that specifically called for San Francisco to directly distribute the water and electricity generated by the O’Shaughnessy Dam to its residents and for their benefit. The city does so with the water, through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, but Pacific Gas & Electric used its power and connections to take control of the electricity and keep it, corrupting the political system for nearly a century in the process.

“The result: San Francisco has paid through the nose to PG&E for its power and the city loses about $30 million a year in profits it would get from a public system,” journalist J.B. Neilands wrote in the March 27, 1969 issue of the Bay Guardian, the first of dozens of stories we’ve written on the topic, spanning many unsuccessful public power campaigns, each one dominated by millions of dollars in PG&E spending.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s longstanding effort to develop a municipal renewable energy program has been stymied by politics, but certain aspects of the plan are advancing nevertheless.

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

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

Earlier this year, members of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, a body composed of mayoral appointees, refused to approve a not-to-exceed rate for the program, effectively obstructing any forward progress.

“This does not get around the political problem we have,” said Eric Brooks, a longtime advocate of CleanPowerSF. “On Aug. 13, from [the SFPUC’s] standpoint, they put the program on hold.” Nevertheless, “the idea is to work on all the other things, and get those things done.”

Project proponents plan to bring on a consultant to hash out more tangible goals with regard to job creation, and then use those shovel-ready plans to bring trade unions on board.

The political pressure against CleanPowerSF, fueled by groups associated with PG&E in political alignment with Mayor Ed Lee, is formidable. Yet Breed and others remain undeterred. “We want labor to be a partner on this,” Breed told the Bay Guardian. “We want to make sure that it’s clear, and more importantly, we want it to be a strong proposal. … My goal is to make it difficult for them to oppose it.”

A century after the Raker Act, San Franciscans are still illegally denied public power


The San Francisco Examiner has a good story on today’s 100th anniversary of the signing of the Raker Act, federal legislation that allowed San Francisco to build a dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley, a campaign championed most fervently at the time by the Examiner’s then-Publisher William Randolph Hearst.

The article was a good roundup of issues related to the Raker Act, and it included ongoing efforts by the group Restore Hetch Hetchy to try to tear down the dam, but there was a key aspect of the Raker Act that the Examiner left out, one that has been championed by the Bay Guardian over the years.

The Raker Act specifically called for San Francisco to directly distribute the water and electricity generated by the O’Shaughnessy Dam to its residents and for their benefit. The city does so with the water, through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, but Pacific Gas & Electric used its power and connections to take control of the electricity and keep it, corrupting the political system for nearly a century in the process.

“The result: San Francisco has paid through the nose to PG&E for its power and the city loses about $30 million a year in profits it would get from a public system,” journalist J.B. Neilands wrote in the March 27, 1969 issue of the Bay Guardian, the first of dozens of stories we’ve written on the topic, spanning many unsuccessful public power campaigns, each one dominated by millions of dollars in PG&E spending.

Section 6 of the Raker Act says that the city “is prohibited from ever selling or letting to any corporation or individual, except a municipality or municipal water district or irrigation district, the right to sell or sublet the water or the electric energy” generated by the dam.

That long-standing violation could become an issue that threatens San Francisco’s control over its main source of clean water and power if Save  Hetch Hetchy gains traction in the courts with a lawsuit that it is pledging to file.

While PG&E doesn’t wield the same strong influence that it once did at City Hall, thanks partly to years of aggressive overreach that soured many local officials on the powerful utility, it does still retain close ties to former Mayor Willie Brown (an attorney who has been on retainer with PG&E for years) and current Mayor Ed Lee, who has sabotaged the latest half-step toward public power, CleanPowerSF.    

Challenge Mayor Lee and his lies


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

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

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

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

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

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

PG&E can’t survive solar energy


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

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

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

If it happens soon, it will happen here:

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

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


City-owned electricity generation works


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

Ha. Ha. Ha.

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

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

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

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

Public broadband works; why not here?


There’s a fascinating new map that the Institute for Local Self Reliance has put together that shows how 342 communities around the United States are now offering publicly owned, cheap, reliable broadband and cable service to local residents and businesses. Check it out here. Then check out why the fastest networks in the nation are built by local governments:

“It may surprise people that these cities in Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana have faster and lower cost access to the Internet than anyone in San Francisco, Seattle, or any other major city,” says Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Telecommunications as Commons Initiative. “These publicly owned networks have each created hundreds of jobs and saved millions of dollars.”

Then sit back and ask yourself why you’re paying so much money every month for the rotten service you get from Comcast and AT&T. Ask your friends, ask around work; is anyone really happy with their broadband service? Do you think you’re getting a good deal for the price?

When I saw the map I called Mitchell, and he told me that every one of the cities and towns on his map has been successful with public ownership. “Within five years, everyone is either making money for the general fund or breaking even and offering really low rates,” he said. “The real benefit is lower prices, which leaves residents with more money in their pockets, which tends to get spent in their communities where it helps local business.”

Most of the cities that have muni broadband (and cable TV!) also have municipal electric power systems, which makes the whole thing easier. But Santa Monica did it bit by bit, installing fiber every time one of the streets was torn up for plumbing, sewers, etc. and gradually building out a network that so far only connects businesses but can be expanded as the money comes in. San Francisco streets are torn up all the time, and will be torn up regularly as water and sewer lines are replaced. The biggest expense of laying cable is cutting open and repaving streets; the cable itself is fairly cheap.

In some states, the big private telecoms have pushed through state legislation banning muni broadband — but not in California. San Francisco has every legal right to get into this business.

So why aren’t we doing it already? “What’s missing,” Mitchell said, “is the political will to really piss off Comcast and AT&T.”

I was just looking at the map when I got an email alerting me to this lovely discussion between Mayor Ed Lee and the head of PG&E, talking about the private utility’s plans to invest $1.2 billion in local infrastructure (more on that in a future blog post). That’s going to involve a lot of digging up streets. So what does Mayor Lee say? Maybe we could allow PRIVATE companies to lay fiber at the same time.

I want to throw up.



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?


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.”

The Mirkarimi vote: Will there be some profiles of courage?


(See the postscript for the Chronicle’s shameful crucifixion coverage of Mirkarimi and a timely, newsworthy oped it refused to run by Mirkarimi’s former girl friend. And how Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders ran the Nieves piece on her blog. Damn good for you, Debra Saunders.)

On Jan. 6, 2011, the Bay Citizen/New York Times broke a major investigative story headlined “Behind-the-Scenes Power Politics: The Making of Ed Lee.” The story by Gerry Shih detailed how then Mayor Gavin Newsom, ex-Mayor Willie Brown, and his longtime political ally Rose Pak orchestrated an “extraordinary political power play” to make Ed Lee the interim mayor to replace Newsom, the lieutenant governor-elect.

The story also outlined the start of a chain of events that leads to the vote by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday on whether Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi keeps his job.

Shih reported that “word had trickled out” that the supervisors had narrowed the list of interim candidates to three—then Sheriff Michael Hennessey, former Mayor Art Agnos, and Aaron Peskin, then chairman of the city’s Democratic party.  But the contenders “were deemed too liberal by Pak, Brown, and Newsom, who are more moderate.”

Over the next 48 hours, Pak, Brown, and the Newsom administration put together the play, “forging a consensus on the Board of Supervisors, outflanking the board’s progressive wing and persuading Lee to agree to become San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor, even though he had told officials for months that he had no interest in the job,” Shih wrote.

The play was sold on the argument that Lee would be an “interim mayor” and that he would not run for mayor in the November election. The Guardian and others said at the time that the play most likely envisioned Lee saying, or lying, that he would not run for mayor and then, at the last minute, he would run and overpower the challengers as an incumbent with big downtown money behind him.  This is what happened. That is how Ed Lee, a longtime civil servant, became the mayor and that is how the Willie Brown/Rose Pak gang won the day for the PG&E/Chamber of Commerce/big developer bloc and thwarted the progressives.

Let us note that the other three interim candidates would most likely never have done what Lee did and suspend Mirkarimi for pleading guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment in an arm-bruising incident with his wife Eliana. In fact, Hennessey supported Mirkarimi during the election and still does and says he is fit to do the job of sheriff. 

This was a political coup d’etat worthy of Abe Ruef, the City Hall fixer at the start of the century. “This was something incredibly orchestrated, and we got played,” Sup. John Avalos told Shih. Sup. Chris Daly was mad as hell and he voted for Rose Pak because, he told the Guardian, she was running everything in City Hall anyway. Significantly, the San Francisco Chronicle missed the story and ever after followed the line of its columnist/PG&E lobbyist Willie Brown and Pak by supporting Lee for mayor without much question or properly reporting the obvious power structure angles and plays.

This is the context for understanding a critical part of the ferocity of the opposition to Mirkarimi. As the city’s top elected progressive, he was a politician and force to be reckoned with. His inaugural address as sheriff  demonstrated his creative vision for the department and that he would ably continue the progressive tradition of Richard Hongisto and Hennessey. That annoyed the conservative law enforcement folks. He could be sheriff for a good long time, keep pushing progressive issues from a safe haven, and be in position to run for mayor when the time came. So he was a dangerous character.  

To take one major example, the  PG&E political establishment and others regard him as Public Enemy No. 1. Among other things, he managed as an unpaid volunteer two initiative campaigns during the Willie Brown era. They were aimed at kicking PG&E out of City Hall, enforcing the public power provisions of the federal Raker Act, and bringing  the city’s cheap Hetch Hetchy public power to its residents and businesses for the first time. (See Guardian stories since 1969 on the PG&E/Raker act scandal.)

He then took the public power issue into City Hall when he became a supervisor and aggressively led the charge for the community choice aggregation (cca) project.  His work was validated in the recent 8-3 supervisorial vote authorizing the city to start up a public power/clean energy program. This is the first real challenge ever to PG&E’s private power monopoly.

Significantly, Willie is now an unregistered $200,000 plus a year lobbyist for PG&E. He writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle promoting, among other things, his undisclosed clients and allies and whacking Mirkarimi and the progressives and their issues on a regular basis.  And he is always out there, a phone call here, an elbow at a cocktail party there, to push his agenda.   The word is that he’s claiming he has the votes to fire Mirkarimi.

The point is that the same forces that put Lee into office as mayor are in large part the same forces behind what I call the political assassination of Mirkarimi.  And so, when the Mirkarimi incident emerged, there was an inexorable  march to assassination. Maximum resources and pressure from the police on Mirkarimi. And then maximum pressure from the District Attorney. And then maximum pressure from the judicial process (not even allowing  a change of venue for the case after the crucifixion media coverage.)  And then Lee calls Mirkarimi “a wife beater” and suspends him with cruel and unusual punishment: no pay for him, his family, his home, nor legal expenses for him or Eliana for the duration.

And then Lee pushes for maximum pressure from the City Attorney and the Ethics Commission to try Mirkarimi and force the crucial vote before the election to put maximum pressure on the supervisors. Obviously, the vote would be scheduled after the election if this were a fair and just process.

Lee, the man who was sold as consensus builder and unifier, has become a polarizer and punisher on behalf of the boys and girls  in the backroom.  

And so the supervisors are not just voting to fire the sheriff.  Mirkarimi, his wife Eliana, and son Theo, 3, have already paid a terrible price and, to their immense credit, have come back together as a family.

The supervisors got played last time and voted for a coup d’etat to make Lee the mayor, rout the progressives, and keep City Hall safe for Willie Brown and Rose Pak and friends.   This time the stakes are clear: the supervisors are now voting on the political assassination of the city’s top elected progressive and it’s once again aimed at helping keep City Hall safe for PG&E, the Chamber, and big developers.

The question is, will there be some profiles of courage this time around? b3

P.S.1  Julian Davis for District 5 supervisor: “Supes mum on sheriff,” read the Sunday Chronicle head. Nobody would say how he/she would vote. And poor Sup. Sean Elsbernd claimed that he would be “holed all Sunday in his office reading a table full of thick binders of official documents related to the case plus a few that he’s prepared for himself containing some case law.”  (Anybody wonder how he’s going to vote? Let’s have a show of hands.)  

The last time I saw Julian Davis he was holding a “Stand with Ross” sign at a Mirkarimi rally on the City Hall steps. With Davis, there would be no second guessing and hand wringing on how he would vote. That’s the problem now with so many neighborhood supervisors who go down to City Hall and vote with Willie and downtown. Davis would be a smart, dependable progressive vote in the city’s most progressive district (5), and a worthy successor to Matt Gonzalez and Ross Mirkarimi. If Davis were on the board now, I’m sure he would stand with Ross and speak for Ross, no ifs, ands, or buts. And his vote might be decisive.  

P.S. 2 The Chronicle’s  shameful crucifixion of Mirkarimi continues  The Chronicle has refused to run a timely and  newsworthy op ed piece from Evelyn Nieves, Mirkarimi’s former girl friend. She  wrote an op ed piece for the Chronicle four days before the Tuesday vote.  Nieves is an accomplished journalist who for several years was the San Francisco bureau chief for the New York Times.  She told me that she was notified Monday morning that the Chronicle didn’t have room for the op ed in Tuesday’s paper. I sent an email to John Diaz, Chronicle editorial page editor, and asked him why the Chronicle couldn’t run her op ed when the paper could run Willie Brown, the unregistered $200,000 plus PG&E lobbyist who takes regular whacks at Mirkarimi, as a regular featured column in its Sunday paper.  No answer at blogtime.

This morning, I opened up the Chronicle to find that the paper, instead of running the Nieves piece today or earlier,  ran an op ed titled “Vote to remove Mirkarmi,” from Kathy Black, executive director of the Casa de las Madres, the non profit group that advocates against domestic violence. It has been hammering Mirkarimi for months. On the page opposite, the Chron ran yet another lead editorial, urging the supervisors to “Take a Stand” and vote for removal because “San Francisco now needs its leaders to lead.” It was as if Willie was not only directing the Chronicle’s news operation but writing its editorials–and getting paid both by PG&E and the Chronicle.  And so the Chronicle started out with shameful crucifixion coverage of  Mirkarimi and then continued the shameful crucifixion coverage up until today. Read Nieves on Ross.

Well, the honor of the Chronicle was maintained by columnist Debra Saunders, virtually the Chroncle’s lone journalistic supporter of Mirkarmi during his ordeal. Many Chronicle staffers are privately supportive of Ross, embarrassed by Willie’s “journalism,” and critical of the way the Chronicle has covered Mirkarimi. Saunders posted the Nieves column her paper refused to print on her Chronicle blog. Damn good for you, Debra Saunders.  



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.

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.”