Concerns arise on impacts of SFPUC finances on clean power program 

  • Cindy Chew/2009 S.F. Examiner file photo
  • SFPUC has halted work on the CleanPowerSF program.
Questions are being raised on whether the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is overstating a financial crisis to deal a decisive blow to the hotly debated clean-power proposal that is being opposed by Mayor Ed Lee.

Additionally, the head of the commission, Harlan Kelly, has ordered staff to stop working on the program, said Barbara Hale, SFPUC assistant general manager for power.

In a Jan. 10 memo, Kelly said: “The SFPUC staff is refocusing its work on other issues facing the Power Enterprise. We will continue to do this unless we get further direction from the Commission to resume work on CleanPowerSF.”

CleanPowerSF is a community choice aggregation program permitted by state law that allows municipalities to provide electricity to customers on an opt-out basis using the existing power infrastructure. Such models have long been opposed by PG&E. Marin County was the first in the region to adopt a clean-power program, which is intended to offer customers a greener energy choice.

San Francisco’s effort suffered a major setback in August when the commission rejected the maximum power rates for the program. The vote sparked a heated political feud in which program critics were accused of bowing to PG&E interests. The Board of Supervisors has voted to approve the program, but it will not take effect unless the commission signs off on the rates.

Last week, the agency sounded the alarm about a fiscal crisis it faces that includes a projected Hetchy power shortfall of $467.7 million.

“Trust is really low right now,” said Supervisor John Avalos, referring to what he called misinformation about the program from the mayor and the commission’s unwillingness to approve the rates. “I really want to see some real verification of projected shortfalls within the power program.”

Similarly, Supervisor London Breed said, “From my perspective, I’m not certain that this is just another tactic in order to move away from what we are trying do with clean power.

“I just would really like to see just some documentation of this and not see a situation being created just to derail clean power.”

The commission currently has $19.5 million set aside for CleanPowerSF. Given the reported financial challenges, some think the agency intends to use that money for other needs.

“I thought that the PUC, the commissioners, just did not approve the not-to-exceed rates; but have they made an indication that CleanPowerSF is dead and gone?” Avalos said.

Hale responded, “We’ve been given direction at the staff level to focus our efforts on the need to get our financial house back in order.”

The board members have requested a joint public meeting with the commission to address the future of CleanPowerSF. That meeting has not yet been scheduled.

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