Clean energy measure ignites debate

October 16, 2008 3:40:50 PM PDT
San Franciscans will weigh in Nov. 4 on a controversial proposal to wean the city off fossil fuels entirely before mid-century, and to study whether city-owned power would be the best way to achieve that.

A heavily funded campaign by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to defeat the measure has painted the issue as an ongoing public vs. private power debate that has had several iterations in past measures defeated by San Francisco voters.

Its proponents claim the measure is really about the quickest way to make the city's energy use entirely sustainable and to combat global climate change.

Proposition H, the San Francisco Clean Energy Act, calls for the city to derive 51 percent of its power from clean or renewable energy sources by 2017, and 100 percent or "the greatest amount technologically feasible or practicable" by 2040. The measure requires a simple majority vote for passage.

In addition to requiring the city's Public Utilities Commission to study whether the city should become the main electricity provider, the proposed legislation would allow the Board of Supervisors to approve the issuance of revenue bonds to pay for the purchase or construction of power generation or distribution facilities without further voter approval.

It would also create an independent ratepayer advocate to make recommendations to the city about fair utility rates.

The measure has received the support of eight out of 11 city supervisors, the Sierra Club and state Assembly members Mark Leno and Fiona Ma, but not of Mayor Gavin Newsom, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and PG&E, which provides most of the city's power.

Proponents say the measure would allow the delivery of electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind power at lower utility rates than PG&E currently charges.

Critics argue the plan is merely a thinly veiled public takeover of privately owned utility companies that would cost the city billions of dollars and raise rates.

PG&E has already spent upwards of $5 million to defeat Prop H, according to No on H campaign strategist Eric Jaye, who also runs Newsom's exploratory campaign for governor.

Jaye said the measure would grant the Board of Supervisors "extraordinary new power" by allowing the board to issue revenue bonds of an unknown amount to buy or build power facilities.

The controller's office has estimated the amount to be "likely in the billions," in addition to a cost of between $825,000 and $1.75 million for the study.

"Taking more power for themselves might make sense for politicians, but it's not an idea that's viewed very favorably in the neighborhoods," Jaye argued.

The Sierra Club's John Rizzo, who helped draft the legislation, said any bonds would first have to be approved by the PUC and the city controller before coming before the supervisors, and would also be subject to a mayoral veto.

He also said voters have given the board authority in the past to issue revenue bonds for the multi-billion-dollar retrofit of the Hetch Hetchy water system.

Critics of the measure have also assailed its "clean and renewable energy" language -- which only specifically excludes nuclear power -- as vague, even deceptive, and claimed it could include the fossil fuel-burning power plants in the city's Potrero district, or energy derived from so-called "clean coal."

"It's a lie," Rizzo said, adding that the Sierra Club has fought power plants and coal for years. He said the language was purposely intended not to include specific technologies that might later become outdated, and that the city charter already has language elsewhere that defines clean energy as excluding any energy not based on fossil fuels.

Rizzo said opponents of the measure were framing the issue inaccurately as a public-private power debate, "and intentionally so," he said.

The main goal of the measure is "clean energy," Rizzo maintained. "A public power takeover could be one scenario, but there are other scenarios as well," he said.

Jaye contended a buyout of PG&E would cost the city, and by extension taxpayers, more than $4 billion, and would raise utility rates as much as $400 per year.

Rizzo called a PG&E buyout "one of the least likely scenarios." One possibility could be public-private partnership between the city and PG&E, where PG&E could continue to deliver electricity to residents and the city could generate it or farm it out to clean energy companies, he said.

Under most scenarios, rates would not go up, Rizzo said.

Former PUC General Manager Susan Leal, who also supports the measure, agreed.

Leal said hundreds of cities nationwide have municipally owned power, and offer cheaper rates.

"All the ones I've seen in California, yes they're cheaper," she said.

"I'm someone that wants to see that we get clean power, and we get the best deal for our ratepayers," Leal said. Leal also would not rule out the possibility of a partnership between the city and PG&E to achieve the measure's clean energy goals. She said she would not encourage the city to take over the "aging distribution system" currently owned by PG&E.

But "right now, we're at the mercy of a monopoly," Leal said.

The measure's proponents claim San Francisco already pays PG&E -- "an unaccountable, unelected corporation," they say -- billions of dollars each year.

PG&E spokeswoman Emily Christensen said in a statement that Prop H "is too risky, especially in this current economic environment."

Christensen added that PG&E already "has a proven track record as one of the greenest utilities in the country," with significant investments in solar energy, and expects to provide 13 percent of its power through renewable sources by the end of the year.

For arguments in favor of or against Proposition H, visit www.sfcleanenergy.com and www.stoptheblankcheck.com.


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