People’s power

People’s power

An SFBG 42nd Anniversary Special Report

A sustainable energy system is well within San Francisco’s reach

By Amanda Witherell

Living in a city like San Francisco, it’s pretty easy to advance your personal environmental prerogative. You can walk, ride your bike, or take public transportation almost anywhere you want to go. You can spurn the dominant consumer consciousness and buy used clothes and household goods at thrift stores. You can take short showers and drink clean Hetch Hetchy tap water instead of the bottled stuff. You can pick organic cornflakes over Kellogg’s version. You can even go to a worker-owned co-op that sells mostly organic goods and buy produce from Bay Area growers at the farmers markets.

But when it comes to energy, you’re stuck.

You’re stuck with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. You’re stuck buying electricity that’s 89 percent environmentally unsound, from a company that can’t even meet the modest state requirement of 20 percent renewable by 2010.

The $12 billion utility company offers absolutely no way for consumers to purchase 100 percent green energy, although some of its counterparts, including publicly owned Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Silicon Valley Power, make that option available.

Sure, you can use less electricity by screwing compact fluorescent light bulbs into your lamps, unplugging your cell phone charger when you leave the house, and hanging your clothes on the line to dry. But you can’t look at the diesel and gas-fired Potrero Hill power plant and say, “Nope, I’m getting my power elsewhere.”

What if you could? What if you could hike to the top of Bernal Hill or Mount Sutro and look out across the skyline of San Francisco and no longer see any power plant stacks belching fumes? What if you saw solar panels shimmering on nearly every roof, and wind turbines spinning furiously in the late afternoon breeze, and you knew that your apartment didn’t depend on a distant fossil fuel plant polluting Antioch, or an aging nuclear plant menacing the people of San Luis Obispo?

That’s what a long-term financially and environmentally sustainable energy system for San Francisco would look like. The picture would include thousands of small-scale, locally-owned solar panels and wind turbines and geothermal home heating pumps and plug-in hybrid cars, distributed throughout the city, feeding into a grid that uses wireless technology to monitor and automatically adjust loads in tiny ways you don’t even notice.

It would also involve a new economic model that doesn’t require you to own a home to own solar power, and a system that uses off-the-shelf and emerging technologies to promote efficiency. The city would use its low interest bonding ability to invest in larger tidal power and wind farm infrastructure, and pay for things like burying power lines and training the next generation of city workers to run the new, smarter energy grid and maintain and install more renewable energy.

It isn’t pie in the sky, either — most of the technologies exist, the funding structures are there, and the goals are real: Al Gore has said the country could have 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, and he’s right.

San Francisco is actually on the path to making it happen — with a November ballot measure, Proposition H, and a community choice aggregation system — if City Hall and the voters can get beyond PG&E’s lobbying and lies.

Imagine you’re a longtime tenant in a rent-controlled apartment with a landlord who hasn’t bothered to put solar panels on the roof because he or she doesn’t pay the electric bill (you do). But it doesn’t matter, because you actually own shares in a vast network of photovoltaic panels distributed all over the city, maintained and managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

You, along with the thousands of other San Franciscans who are part of this power cooperative, pay a flat rate for enough shares to meet your energy needs. Over time, as the upfront cost of the system is paid off, your rates decrease and your power bill drops so low it is barely a factor in your life. And the SFPUC helped you find ways to make your apartment more energy efficient, so that some of your wasted electricity could be freed for other people to use. That way, the city wouldn’t have to spend more public money building a new power plant. And the panels you own provide more electricity than you actually need — so you’re making a little money selling the excess to other residents.

This is the vision of what would happen under Proposition H and community choice aggregation (CCA), the city’s proposed plan for locally controlled power. “It unbundles the location of the resource from the ownership so renters can participate,” said Paul Fenn, CEO of Local Power and lead author of the city’s CCA plan. That’s key for a city like San Francisco, where two-thirds of the population rents.

Right now, even though the city has some robust incentives for purchasing solar panels, buyers still need deep pockets to cover the upfront cost.

But the city can use its low-interest bonding authority to purchase panels in bulk and identify well-oriented, available roof space to install them. The roof owner could own the panels, rent the space, just buy the power, or opt out entirely. “It’s not just public power, it’s community power,” Fenn said. “It’s not just owned by the government — it’s owned by the people.”

SMUD — a model public power agency — offers its customers something similar, “solar shares” in an array of panels. Shares start at $10.75 for a half-kilowatt and, depending on how much energy you use, you would save between $4 and $50 per month.

California’s CCA law — Assembly Bill 117, authored by state Sen. Carole Migden and passed in 2002 — allows counties to become their own energy providers and buy or build their own power, then pipe it to residents using the existing transmission infrastructure owned by the utility company. As a CCA, the city could pursue green energy more aggressively than PG&E does, could set its own rates, and make rules about how people are compensated for their power.

For example, current metering laws allow you to be credited the extra energy your solar panels produce during times they aren’t producing. But if at the end of the year your system generates more power than you use, PG&E keeps the surplus — for free. The CCA could pay you a fair rate for it instead.

San Francisco’s current CCA plan lays out the financing and acquisition for 51 percent renewable energy by 2017.

That’s about 360 MW of energy — and the upfront costs for solar panels on homes, businesses, and city buildings, as well as a 150 MW wind farm and scores of other energy-saving measures, are financed by a $1.2 billion revenue bond. Assuming a good interest rate of about 5.5 percent and a 20-year payback, that amounts to $99 million a year for the city.

Rates would cover this and any excess revenue could lower bills or fund future renewable energy projects. And, if voters pass Prop H in November, the city will be required to provide 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Prop. H builds on the existing CCA plan by requiring the city to look at owning its own transmission and distribution system — a program that would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, enough to fund extensive conservation and renewable programs. How can clean, reliable, low-cost energy be right on the horizon? Simple: Public ownership and decentralized local generation.

The benefits of publicly owned, locally based energy are vast. Local distribution cuts the cost of building large transmission lines and saves a lot of energy that’s lost as heat from high voltage electricity traveling long distances. Renewable energy doesn’t use fuel, and fuel is what we’re really paying for from PG&E — which is also a natural gas company.

The city owns no fossil fuel-reliant infrastructure, but PG&E is deeply invested in natural gas, gets about 40 percent of its energy from it, and has four new gas plants under construction. “As a society, we have to decide whether we want to get on the up elevator or the down elevator,” said Robert Freehling, research director for Local Power. “Over time, fuel costs more and more. We make all these investments in hardware and tend to forget that it’s a promise to spend more money later. With solar panels and wind turbines there are no risks that the cost of wind or sunlight is going to go up in five years.”

Natural gas, as well as every other fossil fuel, definitely will rise in price. (PG&E recently raised rates 6 percent to reflect that.) If a carbon tax or a cap and trade law is implemented, it’ll go up even more.

“Ultimately what will happen is that fossil fuels will get more expensive and renewable energy will become more affordable,” Freehling said.

Would the city do a better job of promoting energy efficiency than PG&E? Look at the record.

Between 2003 and 2005, a Peak Energy Program was undertaken as a partnership between PG&E and the SF Department of the Environment (SFE) with $16.3 million in state money. In an August 2006 report, the Office of the Legislative Analyst found that with only an eighth of the funding, SFE was responsible for more than one-fifth of the energy savings. In other words, the city used the money more efficiently than PG&E.

The major criticism of most renewable energy technologies is that they’re intermittent, meaning they can’t provide power all day and all night. The sun goes down; the wind fades. Nuclear, coal, and natural gas are always on because we need power. And though many energy experts have asserted that the grid still needs at least some base load power, this assumes we’ll never apply technology to the system in any meaningful way.

But those critics are talking about a stupid grid — and the days when energy was managed that way are over. Federal and state regulators began meeting as a smart grid task force this year.

In a smart-grid world with 100 percent renewables, intermittent resources are blended to meet the current load, and the load is tweaked in minor, unnoticeable ways to meet what the resources can provide.

Suppose, for example, that it’s mid-afternoon on a hot day and a cloud bank passes over San Francisco, causing the output from all the city’s rooftop solar panels to decrease slightly. The smart grid would instantly send a signal to 10,000 air conditioners and shut them off for 15 minutes until the cloud passes. Later that night, perhaps the output from the city’s wind farm dips from 150 MW to 100 MW — the grid would automatically turn down everyone’s refrigerator by one degree.

“It’s called capacity-balancing,” Fenn said. “It’s part of how you go greener and stay cheaper.”

But PG&E will never pursue real green energy because in the long run, there’s no profit in it. “That’s like trying to persuade AT&T, back in 1975, to pursue developing the Internet,” Fenn said. “We’re not looking for a 20 percent improvement. We want a complete transformation.”

Originally published October 22, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian