10 years on, CleanPowerSF still flickering 

After a decade and more than $4.1 million spent planning to launch an alternative energy provider to compete with PG&E, San Francisco’s community choice aggregation program remains in limbo. Now the question is, can CleanPowerSF be saved with a new approach or will it continue to languish?

The long journey full of political skirmishes, both locally and statewide, toward creating an alternative to PG&E nearly had something to show for it in August. But supporters of the proposal watched in dismay as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission rejected proposed maximum rates for customers.

Had the rates been approved, the program was already well on its way to begin enrolling the first customers, who would receive electricity from a 100 percent renewable energy mixture.

Critics of the proposal seized on several factors, such as the lack of a detailed job-creation plan and associated infrastructure projects; the contract with Shell Energy North America to buy the power; and complaints about the rates, which had a maximum rate of 11.5 cents per kilowatt hour compared to PG&E’s roughly 9 cents per kilowatt hour. For the PG&E customer paying $36.22 a month, under CleanPowerSF, that bill would be $41.52.

Yet CleanPowerSF supporters said the objections were not genuine and instead merely used as excuses for stalling. Some even alleged that Mayor Ed Lee influenced the SFPUC rate vote under pressure from PG&E, which the mayor has denied. Lee stands by his critique of the proposal.

LOOKING FORWARD

California’s community choice aggregation effort was born in the early 2000s as a response to problems with the state’s deregulated energy market that created an energy crisis. While other programs nationwide were created to reduce consumer costs, the state also wanted CCAs to focus on green energy. The effort became law in 2002, and San Francisco’s own CCA push began two years later.

But 10 years on and with no program in place, supporters such as Eric Brooks, an organizer for Our City, a nonprofit advocacy group, say CleanPowerSF is not dead. He said if issues raised — whether they were genuine or merely convenient excuses — can be sorted out, there is no way anyone could oppose the program, even the mayor.

“We’ve got a political problem with the Mayor’s Office at City Hall,” Brooks said, noting that the conflicts also existed with Lee’s two predecessors, Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown.

To that end, the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission — on which Supervisors London Breed, Eric Mar, John Avalos and David Campos sit — has issued a request for proposals for a consultant to take the work done up till now and lay out a more specific plan on job creation, build-out of a local renewable infrastructure and power rates that could meet or beat those of PG&E.

Breed said Friday that she has discussed the process with the mayor and his chief of staff, Steve Kawa.

“They seem open to it,” Breed said. “I’m trying to create a more cooperative environment.”

Though Breed reaffirmed her disappointment with the SFPUC’s August vote, she said bringing in a consultant to hammer out the details is the next step toward launching the program. She added that she hopes to have another vote before the SFPUC in less than a year.

“No, it’s not a waste of money,” Breed said of the time and effort. “This is about the environment.”

THE NEXT STEPS

Today, the SFPUC and LAFCO are holding a joint meeting. Breed said she is looking for clarity from SFPUC commissioners about their concerns as well as assurances that if they are adequately addressed then the rates will be approved. It will be the first public meeting between the two bodies since the rate rejection in August.

At the state level, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano — who as a member of the Board of Supervisors in 2004 helped create CleanPowerSF — has expressed his displeasure in how the SFPUC has handled the effort. Ammiano has introduced a placeholder state bill, with details likely to emerge this month, and there is discussion that it would authorize another local entity other than the SFPUC to approve CleanPowerSF. That could be achieved through signing a joint-powers agreement with an established community choice aggregation program, such as the one in Marin County.

Avalos continues to support the initial proposal and expressed frustration over what he called the lack of attention toward PG&E’s alleged influence over decision-makers at City Hall. He said the new effort underway will likely emerge without the Shell Energy North America contract but will address local labor concerns. Still, he said, the real challenge is the political will of the Mayor’s Office.

“San Francisco is considered to be advanced environmentally,” Avalos said. “Under the Lee administration it’s not. The Lee administration is taking San Francisco backwards.”

The City, like others, has a goal of 100 percent renewable energy use by 2030. Some say CleanPowerSF is the only realistic way to meet that goal.

But the Mayor’s Office sees other opportunities as well. Mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said a focus on energy efficiency could achieve great strides in meeting the goal.

“Saving energy through energy-efficiency improvements is less costly than any new energy supply, whether fossil fuel-based or renewable,” Falvey said. “The energy and utilities industry is changing rapidly, and new programs and technologies are emerging to help us get to 100 percent renewable.”

CleanPowerSF is not identified as a strategy in The City’s Climate Action Plan released by the Department of the Environment in February. And Harlan Kelly, head of the SFPUC, has ordered his staff to stop working on the program and instead focus on the department’s budget shortfall as well as needed infrastructure improvements.

Nevertheless, Brooks remains optimistic that the day will come when CleanPowerSF begins to power residents’ lights and appliances.

“It’s not over at all,” he said. “We will win.”

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