Utility panel oversteps its bounds by refusing to set clean power program in motion 

  • Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

This week, San Francisco stood on the brink of instituting an energy program that has the potential to provide cleaner energy for city residents. But instead of moving the program forward, three appointed commissioners put the entire project in peril — an overreach of their powers that is disappointing, to say the least.

The program in question is CleanPowerSF. If ever implemented, it would allow The City to purchase renewable energy through a provider, Shell Energy North America, and eventually build its own network of clean-power production. The Board of Supervisors approved the program in September, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission then took up the task of implementation.

The commission, a five-member panel appointed by the mayor and approved by the board, has dallied for nearly a year rather than complete the basic task of setting the maximum rates at which CleanPowerSF's electricity can be sold. These rates are important, since too high a price could drive potential customers away and too low of a price could leave The City with a dearth of funds with which to eventually build power generation.

But when the commission took up this issue, it expanded its scope into other territory, including the exact mix of the program's energy portfolio, the jobs plan for the eventual build-out, and even questions about whether The City should get into the residential power business.

Some of these questions are worthy, for The City should ensure that there is actual renewable energy being sold and that the program will follow through on its promise to create jobs here. But they also were premature for the roll-out of the program, since the build-out would occur over a course of several years and the energy portfolio can be altered over time.

The most misguided line of questioning concerned whether there should even be a CleanPowerSF program. Commissioner Ann Moller Caen said, "Our mission statement says 'water first.' I don't know that it's really wise to go into this."

Simply put, that issue is not up to Caen and her commission peers. The elected members of the Board of Supervisors approved this program with a veto-proof majority. It is merely up to the SFPUC to oversee it. According to the latter body's own website, its responsibility is "to provide operational oversight in areas such as rates and charges for services, approval of contracts, and organizational policy." It is troubling that an unelected commission, which is unaccountable to the voters, would move to thwart the will of elected officials in The City instead of providing the operational oversight as is mandated.

The commission may have acted within the letter of the law in trying to protect The City's ratepayers, but it did not act within the spirit of its role in overseeing the operation of the new power program.

There are indeed some serious challenges to launching the CleanPowerSF program as it has been conceived. But the goal should be to rejigger the program's framework so that The City can move forward with selling renewable energy. The City and the Bay Area have been at the forefront of environmental causes for decades, but San Francisco cannot rest on its laurels. Now is the time for these three commissioners to stop feuding with their own agency and hammer out a compromise to CleanPowerSF on the road to implementation.

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