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

The perils of privatization

The perils of privatization

Ronald Reagan started dismantling government 25 years ago, but his privatization legacy is alive and growing — even in San Francisco

Part of a special SFBG 41st anniversary report on privatization

By Amanda Witherell

Over the past few weeks almost every major news outlet in the country has reported on Blackwater, a private company the US government hired to do work in Iraq that was once the exclusive province of soldiers.

The deal hasn’t gone so well: on Sept. 16, Blackwater guards opened fire and, according to the Iraqi government, shot 25 civilians. The incident set off an international furor and has brought into focus the breadth of the company’s work for the US government. It’s prompted an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which showed that since 2001, Blackwater’s federal contracts have increased 80,000 percent. It’s revealed the massive pay inequalities between private security guards and US soldiers — the cost of one private guard could pay the salaries of six soldiers.

And it’s raised a question that’s critical to understanding how government increasingly works in the United States: should a private company be doing the work of the military?

Privatization of public services is all the rage in this country now, at all levels of government, from Washington DC to San Francisco. Supporters say the private sector can often work better and more efficiently than the old, bureaucratic, much-maligned government.

But Blackwater is a great example of the perils of privatization. And there are many more.

STARVE THE BEAST

Over the past few decades governments at all levels in this country have been in a near-perpetual state of deficit. Taxes are way down from their historic post–World War II levels, and except for a brief period during the tech boom, there is rarely enough money for even basic social services.

“It’s been a strategy since the ’70s to, as Grover Norquist calls it, ‘starve the beast,'<0x2009>” Robert Haaland, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, told us.

And because politicians, even Democrats, are terrified of tax hikes, they’ve been looking for more efficient ways to use the money they have. The magic bullet goes by many names — privatization, public-private partnerships, competitive outsourcing, creative financing solutions — but the basic idea is to allow the power of competition, set free in an unregulated market, to provide the public with the best services at the lowest cost.

“To do or to buy is the question that all governments face,” says Ken Jacobs, director of UC Berkeley’s Labor Center.

We’ve been buying. Since 2000, outsourcing of federal dollars has increased 100 percent, to $422 billion in taxpayer funds in 2006, according to a September study by the Washington DC US Public Interest Research Group. The US government is now the private sector’s largest customer.

San Francisco may be known as one of the most progressive cities in the country, but this town has also been wooed by public-private partnerships with promises of improvements to the golf courses, construction of a new power plant, and funding for the many civic needs we have.

PRIVATIZE MUNI?

Cheerleaders for privatization look at someone like Nathaniel Ford, executive director of San Francisco’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, and see everything that’s wrong with the public sector. Ford’s salary is nearly $300,000, plenty high enough to attract a talented leader. But the Muni system he runs keeps the average San Franciscan waiting on the corner in the morning, delivers that person to work at an unpredictable hour, and lurches them homeward every night aboard a standing-room-only bus. Nobody thinks Muni is performing well.

That makes the case for privatization seem almost appealing.

“The public has been schooled to think that government is the problem, not the solution,” Elliott Sclar, professor of economics at Columbia University, told us. In his 2000 book on privatization, You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization (Cornell University), he writes, “American folk wisdom holds that, by and large, public service is uncaring, unbending, bureaucratic, and expensive, whereas competitively supplied private services such as FedEx are efficient and responsive.”

Competition, the privatizers say, drives innovation. Less red tape means more efficiency. A lack of unions and collective bargaining agreements translates to lower labor costs. Large-scale multinational operations can reduce redundancy and streamline their processes — all of which adds up to a lean-running machine.

But this country has a lot of experience with privatization, and the record isn’t good.

One hundred years ago private companies did a lot of what we now call government work. “Contracting out was the way American cities carried out their governmental business ever since they grew beyond their small village beginnings,” writes Moshe Adler, a Columbia professor of economics, in his 1999 paper The Origins of Governmental Production: Cleaning the Streets of New York by Contract During the 19th Century. At one time private companies provided firefighting, trash collection, and water supplies, to name just a few essential services.

But according to Adler, “By the end of the 19th century contracting out was a mature system that was already as good as it could possibly be. And it was precisely then that governmental production came to America. The realization that every possible improvement to contracting out had been tried led city after city to declare its failure.”

For example, the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires in San Francisco were what prodded the city to municipalize water service after the company charged with the task, Spring Valley Water, failed to deliver while the fires raged.

In Philadelphia as well as San Francisco, the business of firefighting was once very lucrative — for both the firefighting companies and the arsonists who were paid to set fires for the former to fight. And corruption was rampant. “Large amounts of public contracting out historically created lots of opportunities for fraud and nepotism,” Jacobs said.

So public agencies stepped in to provide basic services as cheaply and uniformly as possible. Towns and cities took on the tasks of security with police and firefighting, education with schools and libraries, and sanitation with trash collection and wastewater treatment. Nationally, the federal government improved roads and transit, enacted Social Security benefits, and established a National Park System, among many other things.

And then, about 30 years ago, the pendulum started to swing the other way. Driven by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, enacted in a massive policy shift by Ronald Reagan, proliferated by Grover Norquist and the neocon agenda, and fully appreciated by corporations and private companies, privatization came back.

In Reagan’s first term, he cut taxes 25 percent overall; the rich got a 40 percent cut. Domestic spending fell by half a trillion dollars in the 1980s, although any savings were countered by a rise in the defense budget.

Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, quoted in Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency (Johns Hopkins University), put it this way: “The Reagan budgets will influence the government for the rest of this century. Just as the Great Society left an imprint of Federal commitment to help the indigent and equality of opportunity, the Reagan budget deficits will leave an imprint of non-involvement.”

Such a massive realignment of money coupled with tax breaks too politically painful to reinstate led to a boom in the outsourcing of public services. Private companies began doing more municipal work, while nonprofit organizations tried to fill the gaps in funding for social services, welfare, housing, health care, and the environment.

The George W. Bush era has seen even more overt outsourcing. These days no-bid contracts are preferred, and at times government services are completely turned over to the private sector in “direct conversions,” and the public agency that once did the job is not allowed to compete to keep it. The Washington Post recently reported that no-bid government contracts have tripled in the past six years.

This doesn’t really sound like the competitive free market espoused by the theory of privatization.

FLUNKING THE TEST

To field-test the primacy of privatization, the Reagan administration sponsored a transportation experiment in the early ’80s: Miami’s Metro-Dade Transit Agency got to compete against Greyhound. The two providers were each given five comparable transit routes to manage over three years, and 80 new buses were bought with a $7.5 million grant from the federal government.

After 18 months 30 of the Greyhound buses were so badly damaged that they had to be permanently pulled from service. Passenger complaints on the Greyhound line were up 100 percent, and ridership was down 31 percent over the course of a year.

Why? There was no incentive in Greyhound’s contract to maintain the equipment or retain riders. The company’s only goal was to deliver the cheapest service possible.

The Miami transit contract could have contained clauses calling for regular inspections or guaranteed ridership, but that would have significantly increased the cost of the work — perhaps to the point where it would have been competitive with what the city provided.

That’s an important lesson in privatization politics: when you add the cost of adequately protecting the public’s interest and monitoring contract compliance, the private sector doesn’t look so efficient.

Which is why many say privatization only succeeds as a theory — and why, for all the problems with Muni, no private company is likely to be able to do a better job.

“Market fundamentalists present an idealized, simpleminded notion of competitive markets in which buyers and sellers have equal knowledge,” Sclar told us. “Anyone can be a buyer, anyone can be a seller, everyone can evaluate the quality of the good. In this never-never land, that’s often the way the case is made for privatization by this particular group of economists.”

In the real world a number of issues arise when a service goes private. “Accountability gets to be a really big problem,” Ellen Dannin, professor of law at Penn State University, said in an interview. “There are predictions about how much money will get saved through privatization, but no one ever goes back to check.”

The September study by the US Public Interest Research Group profiled several companies that do government work, including Bank of America, LexisNexis, ChoicePoint, KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown, and Root), General Electric, and Raytheon, and found instances of illegal behavior in all cases. There were often massive errors in the companies’ work.

Bank of America and LexisNexis had security breaches compromising the data of at least 1.5 million customers they were handling for the government. ChoicePoint allowed identity-theft scams amounting to more than $1 million in fraud. KBR overcharged the government millions of dollars for work in Iraq and Kuwait. GE made defective helicopter blades for the US military. Raytheon failed to fully test the systems of new aircraft. These companies are all still employed by the government.

When companies take over services that aren’t typically part of a competitive market, all sorts of unexpected problems occur. Jacobs points to the rash of contracting for busing services in cash-strapped school districts. Not only did costs eventually rise in many places, but when schools tried to go back to providing their own service, the skilled drivers who knew the routes, knew the kids, and were able to do much more than drive a bus were gone.

Sclar and Dannin agree that any service that lacks competition should be public. Sclar presented the example of electricity. “It’s a natural monopoly,” he said. “Essentially it’s either going to be a well-regulated industry or it’s got to be done publicly.”

Corporations exist to make money. And although graft, mismanagement, and scandal have always been present in City Halls around the country, in the end the legislative, judicial, and executive branches were not designed to generate profits. That alone means contracting out is financially dubious.

Hiring mercenaries is a classic example. “It costs the US government a lot more to hire contract employees as security guards in Iraq than to use American troops,” Walter Pincus wrote in an Oct. 1 article in the Washington Post. “It comes down to the simple business equation of every transaction requiring a profit.”

As Pincus details one of the many contracts between the security firm and the US, “Blackwater was a subcontractor to Regency, which was a subcontractor to another company, ESS, which was a subcontractor to Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary, the prime contractor for the Pentagon — and each company along the way was in the business to make a profit.”

Blackwater charged Regency between $815 and $1,075 per day per security operative. Regency turned around and charged ESS a slightly higher average of $1,100. After that, the costs dissolve into the enormous bill that KBR regularly hands the federal government.

When the US Army is paying the bill the costs are far lower. An unmarried sergeant earns less than $100 a day. If you’re married, it’s less than $200. If you’re Gen. David H. Petraeus, it’s about $500 — less than Blackwater’s lowest-paid workers.

Very little about the Blackwater contracts would be known by anyone outside the company if it weren’t for the federal investigation, since private businesses are not subject to the same public-records laws as the federal government. They don’t have to open their books or publicize the details of their bids and contracts, and they often fiercely lobby against any regulations requiring this, which leaves the door wide open for corruption — which is what brought sunshine laws to government in the first place.

Sclar said that when it’s a good call to contract out, corporations, private companies, and nonprofits should be required to abide by public-records laws in addition to adhering to a five-year wait for employees departing the public sector for the private. “I think transparency should always be the goal,” he said. “As much information as possible.” If a company doesn’t want to make its records public, he told us, “[it shouldn’t] go after public work.”

THE AIDS LESSON

Privatization comes in many forms and emerges for what often seem like good reasons.

In the early 1980s gay men in San Francisco were starting to get sick and die in large numbers — and the federal government didn’t care. There was no government agency addressing the AIDS crisis and almost no government funding. So the community came together and created a network of nonprofits that funded services, education, and research.

“The AIDS Foundation was founded in response to the epidemic at a time when there wasn’t a response from the federal government,” Jeff Sheehy of the AIDS Research Center at UC San Francisco told us.

At first, activists all over the country praised the San Francisco model of AIDS services. Over time the nonprofits began to get government grants and contracts. But by the 1990s some realized that the nonprofit network was utterly lacking in public accountability. The same activists who had helped create the network had to struggle to get the organizations to hold public meetings, make records public, and answer community concerns.

That, Sheehy said, shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“There isn’t that same degree of accountability that you would have” with the public sector, he told us. “SF General is not going to turn you away at the emergency room, but nonprofit hospitals are less and less interested in running ERs.”

Sheehy said he’s seen cases where difficult clients have been banned from accessing help from nonprofits. Unlike at public institutions, “the burden is not on the agency to provide the service. It is with the client to get along with the agency,” he said.

Sheehy outlines other issues: nonprofits run lean and are more apt to make cuts and resist unionization, which means workers are often paid less, there can be higher turnover, and upper management is often tasked with fundraising and grant writing and distanced from the fundamental work of the group. There’s no access to records or board meetings. “If service takes a sudden downward shift, what can you do?” Sheehy asks. “You can’t go to board meetings. You can’t access records. What’s your redress?”

And that perpetuates the problem of government not stepping up to the plate. More than half of the social services in San Francisco are run by nonprofits, a trend that isn’t abating.

“When the services are shifted from the public sector to the nonprofit sector,” Sheehy said, “that capacity is lost forever from government.”

THE LOTTERY TICKET

When Dannin teaches her students about privatization, she uses the analogy of personal finance. “If I find my income does not meet my expenses, I can cut my expenses, but there are certain things I have to have,” she said. To meet those needs a person can get a second job. In the case of the government, it can raise taxes.

But “that is not an option governments see anymore,” she told us. “So the third option is to buy a lottery ticket — and that’s what privatization is.”

When a publicly owned road is leased for 99 years to a private company, the politician who cut the deal gets a huge chunk of cash up front to balance the local budget or meet another need. When the new owner of the road puts in a tollbooth to recoup costs, that’s the tax the politician, who may be long gone, refused to impose. What option does the voting driver have now?

Public goods, from which everyone presumably benefits, are frequently and easily falling out of the hands of government and into the hands of profit-driven companies. In New Orleans, charter schools have replaced all but four public schools. In about 15 municipalities public libraries are now managed by the privately owned Library Systems and Services. (In Jackson County, Ore., it’s being done for half the cost, but with half the staff and open half the hours.) At least 21 states are considering public-private partnerships to finance massive improvements to aging roads and bridges. User fees have increased in the national parks as rangers have been laid off and some of the work of park interpretation is picked up by private companies, as is the case with Alcatraz Island.

Dannin also asks her students to consider who really owns a job. The easy answer is the employer. “But there is another claimant of ownership of that job,” she says. “That is the public. Employers depend on roads for their employees to drive to work, a public education system to train their workers. They depend on housing, police, the court system, the system of laws. That is a huge amount of infrastructure we tend not to think about.

“We live within an ecosystem. We’re having a hard time seeing that ecosystem, that infrastructure that we’re all in. That’s what your taxes pay for.”

Originally published October 17, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

PG&E attacks CCA

PG&E attacks CCA

Utility letter slamming city program is debunked by public power advocates

By Amanda Witherell

Editor’s note: PG&E sent this statement via email to a local community group, which passed it along to the Guardian. We’ve taken the liberty of adding some crucial facts, in italics. [PDF]

Despite all the chummy faux-green advertising and energy partnerships with the city that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has engaged in recently, the $12 billion utility has made its first vocal criticism of San Francisco’s proposal to provide more renewable energy to its citizens.

Community Choice Aggregation allows the city to build and purchase its own energy, which PG&E then has to carry through its wires. Legislation to enact the plan was introduced to the Board of Supervisors on April 17 and calls for more efficiency and conservation measures in addition to sourcing from solar and wind to make 51 percent of the city’s energy renewable by 2017.

Jimi Harris of PG&E’s governmental relations department has responded with a letter criticizing CCA that was sent to local community organizations, which then passed it along to the Guardian. The letter included a press release–like statement (which isn’t posted on PG&E’s Web site among other press releases) lauding PG&E’s greenness but going on to criticize the city’s attempts to reduce its carbon burning.

“The proposed plan announced by Supervisors [Ross] Mirkarimi and [Tom] Ammiano appears to be only slightly revised from the version presented over two years ago, which has languished largely because it’s unworkable, and poses huge risks to customers, taxpayers, and the City,” the letter reads.

“It hasn’t languished because it’s unworkable,” Tony Winnicker of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission told us. “We wanted to make sure we were doing it right. As a city family, we’ve pursued it responsibly. This is coming from a company that’s tried to pass off its nuclear power as renewable.”

Winnicker says the plan has been thoroughly vetted by a bevy of outside experts. Local CCA advocates think this is just the beginning of a long battle.

“I’m surprised that they’re telegraphing their moves so early,” Mirkarimi told us. “But I’m not surprised they’re doing it. They will do anything they can to assassinate any effort that presents public power as an alternative option.”

John Rizzo, chair of the SF Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, and noted energy consultant Paul Fenn, who helped draft the plan, think PG&E’s attack not only is full of false claims, but may also be illegal. CCA was allowed by Assembly Bill 117, which also mandates that utilities cooperate and not interfere with communities undertaking this kind of power plan. According to Fenn, the California Public Utilities Commission “was very strict in its interpretation of the statute and said that if utilities didn’t fully cooperate, the CPUC would move to punish its shareholders.”

Originally published May 9, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Green isn’t PG&E

Green isn’t PG&E

The private utility is trying to sell itself as an ecofriendly company. Here’s the truth

By Amanda Witherell

You’ve seen the ads, lime colored and screaming from the sides of Muni buses, papered to the walls of BART stations, popping up on local news Web sites. “Let’s green this city,” they proclaim in a chummy, we’re-all-in-this-together way. Like any good ad campaign, these broadsides, brought to you by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., are designed to snap your eco-consciousness into thinking, “Hell yeah! I’m going to get right on that!”

And like any good greenwashing campaign, they are also designed to distract you from what’s really going on at the $12.5 billion utility company.

“There’s an advertising rule that’s based on the idea to advertise where you’re weakest,” says Sheldon Rampton, cofounder of the Center for Media and Democracy, which regularly tracks corporate greenwashing. “What typically happens with greenwashing is an attempt to create a superficial image without changing anything the company’s doing that would affect their bottom line.”

Yes, PG&E has the fourth largest alternative fuel fleet of any utility in the country. (That’s if you define natural gas as an alternative fuel, a resource in which this utility happens to have $9 billion already invested. It’s still a fossil fuel and only burns 30 percent cleaner than oil and coal.)

Yes, PG&E is making environmental strides with increased investments in solar, biogas, and wind energy. (But the company will, by its own admission, fail to make the state-mandated goal of selling 20 percent renewables by 2010.)

Yes, PG&E has committed $1 billion over the past three years to energy-efficiency programs. (Actually, that money isn’t a kindhearted gift from the shareholders. It’s mandated by state law. And much of it comes from the ratepayers — see the “Public Goods Charge” on your monthly bill.)

Yes, PG&E has been donating solar panels to local schools and nonprofits. (Less than 1 percent of PG&E’s power comes from solar energy.)

Yes, the folks at PG&E have been loudly announcing all their good deeds. Here’s what else they’ve been working on, a little more quietly.

GREEN IS NOT A SUPERHERO

A recent PG&E television commercial shows children playing with Renewable Energy Man and chanting, “Sun, water, wind” as the future sources of power. But consider:

PG&E’s current power profile is 44 percent fossil fuels, 24 percent nuclear, 20 percent large hydro, and only 12 percent renewable.

As of 2006, PG&E had planned to integrate 300 megawatts of renewable energy sources a year into its overall profile in an effort to make the state-mandated goal of 20 percent renewables by 2010.

In 2006 Securities and Exchange Commission filings, PG&E projected it would miss that goal by a couple percentage points and is relying on the “flexible compliance” that the law allows.

The utility is currently building 1,350 megawatts of fossil fuel–burning plants, which are permitted to emit up to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.

In December 2006, PG&E filed permit applications with the California Pubic Utilities Commission for 2,300 megawatts of conventional, nonrenewable power sources.

Renewable Energy Man is looking pretty weak.

GREEN ISN’T NATURAL GAS

PG&E is working to secure permission to build an $850 million, 232-mile gas pipeline, called the Pacific Connector, to bring one billion cubic feet of natural gas a day from Oregon into PG&E’s California customer territory starting in 2011. Some facts about natural gas:

PG&E customers currently use 836 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year, or 2.3 billion cubic feet per day. Over the past 20 years, natural gas usage in California has increased in concert with the rise in population — about 1 to 2 percent per year. The new pipeline would increase daily supply by 50 percent.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is considered the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but it’s still a hazardous, flammable material and can freeze-burn skin, crack ship decks, and asphyxiate.

A “small” LNG tanker is the length of three football fields and burns 170 metric tons of fuel (natural gas and heavy-duty diesel) per day. Planners anticipate at least six to seven ships will dock per month at a new LNG terminal in Coos Bay, Ore.

PG&E recently showcased a hybrid natural gas–electricity plug-in Toyota Prius with V2G, or vehicle to grid, technology. Unlike those of other electric cars, the connection is two-way — power comes from the grid to the car, but power can also go from the car to the grid. PG&E has said that if enough people own these cars, each one will be a miniature storage unit of power for the utility to draw on during peak hours — eliminating the need for more power plants. If the utility takes too much electricity from your battery while you work or sleep, you can still run the car on natural gas. But either way, you’re paying PG&E for the electricity and the fuel, and since PG&E electricity is hardly renewable, it isn’t doing much for the ecosystem.

GREEN IS NOT A NUKE

Twenty-four percent of PG&E’s so-called nonemissions burning power comes from nuclear plants in Humboldt Bay and Diablo Canyon. When asked if PG&E is considering future nuclear power plants, spokesperson Keely Wachs said, “We’re not ruling it out.” Some reasons to worry:

One of PG&E’s newest board members is Richard Meserve, former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The decommissioning of nuclear power facilities is set to begin at the Humboldt Bay plant in 2009 and at the Diablo Canyon plant in 2024, at a cost of $2.1 billion, or more than $5 billion in future dollars — all of which you will pay.

PG&E will undergo a $16 million study of the feasibility of relicensing Diablo Canyon (at your expense).

PG&E currently has contracts out for $539 million of nuclear fuel, which you will pay for.

And, of course, PG&E spends millions fighting public power (which is almost always more environmentally sound than PG&E’s private mix). Green city or greenwashing? It seems pretty clear to us.

Originally published April 17, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian