CleanPowerSF must ensure tangible reductions in fossil fuel usage 

San Francisco has an opportunity to lessen its use of energy from fossil fuels and thus reduce its carbon footprint by adding new renewable energy to the electric grid. But to do this, city officials need to properly plan and execute a yet-to-be-started program whose prospects appear to be dimming.

The program is CleanPowerSF, a system that would allow The City to set up an alternative to the monopoly service provided by PG&E. This program was conceived as a way to provide 100 percent renewable energy to a portion of San Franciscans at a price expected to be initially higher than what customers now pay for PG&E power. The extra revenues would allow The City to build new, nonfossil-fuel power generation systems. At least that’s the theory.

The problem is that city officials do not have a clear enough plan for attaining that goal. When CleanPowerSF starts, it will rely on Shell Energy as a middleman to purchase the energy. The program’s roadmap has The City weaning itself from the services of this multinational energy company within five years. The strategy calls for a multipronged approach, including energy-efficiency upgrades for buildings and residences, residential solar-installation rebates, and small- and large-scale renewable-energy projects.

But The City has been slow to spell out how it intends to approach this transition, and that is a cause for some concern. After all, the point is not to simply compete with PG&E.

In fact, probably in response to the competitive threat from efforts such as CleanPowerSF, PG&E has been adding solar energy to the electric grid at a faster pace than any other utility in the nation, according to the Solar Energy Power Association. That group says PG&E connected 805 megawatts of new solar power last year, which made the utility first in that category for 2012.

And as SF Weekly recently reported, the rates for PG&E’s own clean-power program, which like The City’s service is due within the next year, will be up to 25 percent cheaper than those planned for CleanPowerSF, although The City plans to reveal new, slightly lowered rates today.

Higher electric rates for consenting San Franciscans are not a problem, if The City uses the extra money wisely.

But the goal of this endeavor must be to reduce The City’s use of fossil fuels, whether by reducing energy consumption or adding new sources of clean energy production to the power grid. Neither The City nor PG&E should receive credit for any “green power” that is actually fossil fuel-produced energy offset with some sort of clean-power credit. Continuing to burn fossil fuels and then planting trees in mitigation is not the type of environmentalism for which this city should stand.

City officials want a program that will shift our energy to cleaner sources, but the roadmap they have laid out is unclear. The San Franciscans who will be asked to pay higher electric rates for this system need to see a firm plan of how The City will build out its renewable power system.

In theory, CleanPowerSF is a worthwhile program. But as it comes closer to the date on which The City will flip the light switch, this theory needs to be turned into a reality.

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