Kiwis win first real Cup race

 

Kiwis win first real America’s Cup race as Oracle adapts to rejected rule change

After a week of one-boat “races,” an argument over rules, and an angry sponsor making waves in international media, it would be easy to write off the America’s Cup as the lamest party in town (so lame, in fact, that the organizers have ceased broadcasting the one-boat shows on YouTube).

But, it was a week of wins for Emirates Team New Zealand, most obviously the solid drubbing they delivered to Luna Rossa on Saturday (7/13) during the first race at which two boats actually showed.

A smart “hook” by ETNZ blocked Luna Rossa from the start line and gave the Kiwis a five second advantage that stretched to over five minutes during the seven legs of the race. Unfortunately, that was the peak of the action as the gap between the boats grew so great and Luna Rossa officially earned a “did not finish” result for exceeding the five minutes allowed to cross the finish line after ETNZ. Overall, the match was almost as boring to watch as the single-boat snoozefests of earlier in the week, however it did show off the capabilities of the Kiwi crew, who are clearly mastering foiling while jibing, a key move for maintaining high speeds downwind.

Which brings us to the other big win for the New Zealanders this week. On Thursday, the international jury [1]ruled in favor of ETNZ and Luna Rossa, who protested a new rule requiring larger, symmetrical rudder elevators as a matter of safety. The jury decided that allowing the larger rudder elevators – which Oracle have been using on their boat since they relaunched in April after a pitch-pole in October destroyed their wing sail – would violate the AC72 Class Rule that governs the design specifications of the boats.

They said regatta director Iain Murray couldn’t change this rule without buy-in from all the competitors and that voluntary compliance of the other safety rules would appease the Coast Guard, which permitted the event based on the additional safety measures made after Andrew Simpson died.

The rudder elevators help stabilize the lightweight boats while foiling, or lifting off the surface of the water to hit speeds of over 40 knots – ETNZ saw 42.3 on the speedometer on Saturday while Luna Rossa maxed out at 39.9 knots. The crew that masters this move and can maintain it over the course of a race will likely come out ahead. ETNZ is doing it now and will likely get better and better at it over the coming weeks as they continue to race the course through the multiple round robins of the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Meanwhile, Oracle will have to return to the drawing board and Ellison’s crew will need to get out on the water and re-learn how to handle their boat with a new rudder that complies with the Class Rule.

Oracle has been tight-lipped on the subject, with just a brief statement from general manager Grant Simmer on the jury’s decision. “We continue to support the Regatta Director and we believe all teams have benefited from his review. We don’t have an issue complying with the Class Rule, and we will be ready to race under the rules affirmed by the Jury.”
However, they may have an issue playing catch-up to the Kiwis, who have a lot on the line. If they aren’t able to wrest the Auld Mug from Larry Ellison’s hands, it’s likely the New Zealand government won’t chip in for a future campaign – especially if high-tech, billion-dollar boats remain the name of the game.

The Kiwis have already chalked up four points and will need to win just one more of the next three bouts with Italy to advance to the Louis Vuitton Cup semifinals, during which the Swedish team, Artemis, should be back on the water. Spectators won’t see Oracle on the course until September 7, when the America’s Cup final matches commence, however there should be plenty of opportunities to observe their practice sessions with a newly rule-compliant boat.

To that end, it’s worth noting that situating the race close to land for the first time in the Cup’s history, and with a short course completed in multiple laps, was supposed to draw crowds to the shoreline and the television screen. Now that I’ve seen the boats live and on television, I have to admit that so far it’s still a pretty boring sport to watch. Standing near the start line at Marina Green or the finish line at Piers 27/29 may get you flashes of action and watching it on television is like watching a video game.

The best of both worlds is to park as near as possible to the water and get your hands on a portable marine VHF radio tuned to channel 20, which transmits the official America’s Cup broadcast. Then you can hear details on speed and tactics while actually seeing the most unforgettable part of this race – the boats jibing downwind, hitting freeway speeds while foiling with spray flying and crewmembers bouncing from one hull to the other.

That’s still drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd.

Originally published July 15, 2013 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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New Zealand’s Cup

America’s Cup, seen by many here as a billionaire’s boat race, looks very different Down Under, with its culture of sailing and maritime innovation.

PHOTO: GETTY/EZRA SHAW

A few weeks ago I was walking down the dock in the marina where I live, in Wellington, New Zealand, when I passed a woman and a young boy. I’d never seen them before, which is uncommon here in this municipal marina — about 100 boats — in a small suburb of the country’s capital.

The boy was walking from berth to berth pointing out certain rig and hull features and expounding on them as only a future aficionado can. “Lots of different boats, huh?” I asked as I passed.

“Different than America,” he confirmed in an accent the same as mine.

The kid is sharp, I thought, or maybe it’s just obvious, even to an eight-year-old from Chicago. The New Zealand sailing scene is vastly different than its American counterpart, which is not to say there’s no comparing — they’re not exactly navigating carved logs with gunnysack sails down here.

But the boats in my marina are, in fact, mostly homebuilt from steel, cement, aluminum, and wood. They appear a motley crew compared to the cookie-cutter production fiberglass Beneteaus, Catalinas, and Hunters, with their identical pacific blue sail covers lined up in San Francisco’s South Beach Marina.

In New Zealand, a boat is rarely a status symbol — it’s part of the middle-class way of life, the home base for holidays and weekend fishing trips and lots and lots of competitive racing. If I’ve noticed one thing since I arrived in this country (aboard a sailboat, after leaving San Francisco and my job as a Bay Guardian staff writer), it’s that every little harbor town has a yacht club and an awful lot of Kiwis own boats — and they sail the shit out of them.

Which is part of the reason why the New Zealand government is willing to invest NZ$36 million (US$27 million) to compete in the 34th America’s Cup against some of the richest men in the world in a race that has become so elite there’s barely any competition.

Small as the field is, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) is quickly shaping up to be the team to beat if you’re on a high-speed, air-catching AC72 catamaran. If they succeed, it will show that developing an America’s Cup team doesn’t have to come from having deep pockets in your Nantucket Red pants — it comes from having the sport ingrained in your culture, filtered through affordable local boat clubs, city-run facilities, volunteer programs, publicly accessible shorefronts, and an innovative marine industry.

In fact, without New Zealand’s maritime way of life, Larry Ellison wouldn’t have much of a team: of the 27 sailors and management crew aboard Oracle, a third are Kiwis. Another third are Australians. If you count Ellison, there are only three Americans aboard. Just one of them — tactician and grinder John Kostecki — grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay.

Ellison’s boat is mostly a Kiwi production, too — the fixed-wing sails and structural components for Oracle’s two AC72s were made in New Zealand, as were the boats, sails, and rigs for ETNZ and Luna Rossa. The only other syndicate competing, Sweden’s Artemis, in the wind since the death of crewmember Andrew Simpson, is the outlier, but they still have eight New Zealanders on board.

America’s Cup is looking more and more like it owes a lot to New Zealand. Is the Cup doing as much for San Francisco as it is for this little island nation, with a population just a tenth of California’s?

“If it wasn’t called Team New Zealand, we wouldn’t get a lot out of it,” says Sven Pannell, a competitive dinghy racer and employee of the economic development agency Grow Wellington. “The numbers of boat builders, carbon fabricators, sail makers, yacht designers coming out of New Zealand are the reason we’re still at the top of the global game. If we can bring the Cup home that means a lot for our country.”

It may also save America’s Cup from becoming even more out of touch with reality.

IT’S THE CULTURE, STUPID

It’s June 8, summer in San Francisco but winter in Wellington. The first race of the 2013 Winter Series at Evans Bay Boat Club hits hypothermic seas beneath steely overcast skies and 20-30 knots of wind — “perfect conditions,” one sailor enthuses. Tame, actually, for Wellington. A week ago, wind blew out the fifth story windows of a building downtown.

Sven Pannell has just finished racing a 12-foot skiff, a super lightweight, often homebuilt boat that probably originated in Australia and is almost exclusively raced in the Southern Hemisphere, though an 18-foot version will be showcased in San Francisco this September alongside the America’s Cup finals. Weighing about 100 pounds, with no class restrictions on sail area, they rooster-tail around Wellington harbor, bow high, barely in the water. They seem to require a similar caliber of nerve as the AC72s.

Which Pannell, who won today, evidently has. He grew up sailing as a kid, as did his crew, Craig Anderson. Neither of them can think of anyone who didn’t get into sailing as a child.

“A lot of people around the world think yachting is a well-heeled sport, but not in New Zealand,” he says. “There’s a reason that half those [America’s Cup] boats are full of Kiwis and Aussies. Go out and see the number of eight-year-olds in Optis in all kinds of weather here. A high number of people sailing at that age creates a deep pool of sailors in demand.”

“America’s Cup is about stretching the limits, but it starts here, when you’re eight years old,” he adds.

Eager to get out of the icy Antarctic wind, I enter the boat club where about 35 people are gathered at the bar, buzzing from adrenalin, barefoot and wet from spray or capsizes, gripping ginger beers and green bottles of Steinlager, the Budweiser of New Zealand. It’s a humble looking crowd — no flash gear or cashmere.

I’m introduced to Mike Rhodes, 26, wearing a blue sweatshirt and camo pants. He’d love to race an America’s Cup boat, but he also satisfies himself with a 12-foot skiff, which he stripped and rebuilt, fashioning the stainless steel fittings himself — he’s a sheet metal worker.

“New Zealand sailing is all about learning and moving forward,” he says. “The boats we’re sailing are always changing. We have set rules for weight, width, and length. After that it’s wide open. You can put up as much rig as you can handle. We went out in 50 knots last weekend. It was insane. We probably had boat speeds of 30 knots.”

The speed and innovations are what appeal to Rhodes and also connect to the America’s Cup, which has been an historic proving ground for leaps forward in boat design. “Who thought New Zealand could make the boat fly first?” he says of ETNZ’s proficiency at foiling the AC72 — going so fast the hull actually lifts off the water.

We’re soon joined by Laura Hutton, a 30-year-old from Cape Cod. She’s raced dinghies, coached and taught sailing for years. Now a speech therapist, she moved to New Zealand three months ago and immediately hooked into the local yachting scene. It’s palpably different than what she’s used to in the States. Here, she says, “It’s a lot more laid back. It’s more inclusive than exclusive. I used to go to events at New York Yacht Club in Newport and I felt so uncomfortable there. It’s the most elite, snobby place.”

“You can’t get coaching in the US unless you’re part of a yacht club or go to a school with a racing team,” she adds, and there’s often a huge cost to enter the sport. “Here, I can join the local yacht club for $35 a month,” she deadpans.

I spend more money riding the bus, I tell her, but I wouldn’t in San Francisco, where it’s cheap to catch a bus but where most people rarely board boats.

The American yacht club tradition has a certain “if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it” attitude. Ellison is one of 300 members of Golden Gate Yacht Club, official host for the Cup. Its neighbor, St. Francis Yacht Club, 2,300 strong, also has a role in the festivities. Both are exclusive, members-only clubs and neither would tell me what their members pay for the club’s privileges.

However, they’re officially nonprofit organizations and filings with the IRS show St. Francis made nearly $13 million in 2011. Golden Gate Yacht Club took home $660,000 the same year. Ironically, both clubs are on public lands, leased from San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department for $231,125 and $64,000 annually respectively.

Both clubs run learn-to-sail programs for kids — $350 for St. Francis and $200 for GGYC — which seem affordable, but what’s the next step? Joining the club, but apparently it’s too rude to query the price.

By contrast, Wellington’s Evans Bay Boat Club charges NZ$281 (US$210) to join and Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, which is a sister club to St. Francis, costs NZ$160 (US $120). The Bay Area is lucky — Berkeley and Treasure Island both have affordable clubs, however one could argue that if St. Francis and GGYC are on public lands, they should be paying more in dues to the city.

If there’s a posh club in Auckland, it’s ETNZ’s home — the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. “But it’s a Kiwi version of posh, nothing like some of the yacht clubs I have been to in places like England, where women aren’t allowed to order drinks at the bar,” says Ben Gladwell, a journalist for Boating New Zealand who will be racing an 18 foot skiff in San Francisco in a regatta concurrent with the Cup finals. “At the Squaddy, there are obviously rules, like no cell phones, and dress codes and such like, but the fees are still only a few hundred dollars per year and it is much more inclusive than other yacht clubs around the world.”

Gladwell explored the health of New Zealand’s sailing culture in a story called “State of the Racing Nation” for Boating New Zealand. He found that although there is a drop-off in interest during university years, many yacht clubs have created partnerships to keep kids in the sport, there are mobile learn-to-sail units roaming the country, and lots of accessible city-run programs for kids. Couple that with low lifetime fees to stay in the sport and you see healthy clubs like Evans Bay, where people of all ages are out racing every weekend, all year round.

“Having so many people involved in sailing is a major reason we are successful,” he says. “Children are introduced to it at such a young age…by the time they come to competing at youth international regattas, they are hugely experienced and winning becomes a habit.”

“AMERICA’S CUP IS NOW NEW ZEALAND’S CUP”

In 1995, when Black Magic smoked Dennis Connor’s Stars and Stripes in a five-race shut-out, commentator Peter Montgomery famously quipped “America’s Cup is now New Zealand’s cup,” a line that’s gone down in Kiwi history like the “I have a dream” speech.

For the first time, the Auld Mug would be defended in New Zealand. Back then, Auckland’s Viaduct Harbor probably looked a lot like parts of San Francisco’s waterfront does today — dilapidated piers and old industrial buildings crumbling on their pilings. It would cost of NZ$58 million (US$29 million at the time) to dredge the harbor and spruce up the waterfront for the Cup.

The city made its money back. Hosting for two years, in 2000 and 2003, brought NZ$1 billion (US$500 million, at the time) in economic benefits to the country, about 85 percent of that going to Auckland’s local businesses, mostly from visiting megayachts and the services required for the nine syndicates that competed — twice as many as are in San Francisco today.

And Auckland made a lot less than the US$900 million predicted for San Francisco, already trimmed from the US$1.4 billion initially estimated. What the city actually gains from the $22.5 million investment they’ve been forced to make remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Auckland continues to benefit from the race.

It’s been estimated that the four Cup contenders have collectively spent half a billion on their campaigns and a decent chunk of that has been in Auckland, particularly during the AC72 design, build, and testing phases. Already, taxes paid by ETNZ employees amount to NZ$22.4 million (US$16.5 million). That doesn’t include the employee payroll taxes of all the businesses doing Cup-related activity, like the boat builders, riggers, and sailmakers.

ETNZ CEO Grant Dalton has netted sponsorships from more than 100 companies and argues that the Cup efforts have kept many marine businesses afloat that would have otherwise shuttered. Kiwis have not been immune to the world financial situation: the high New Zealand dollar hurting exports and the NZ$30 billion (US$22.5 billion) price tag for the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake have stressed the country’s coffers.

Because of that, funding ETNZ has been as contentious here as hosting Ellison’s party has been to San Franciscans. The agreement was signed in 2007 by a Labour Party-led government and when National Party’s John Key won the Prime Minister’s seat in 2008, he looked into breaking the contract, a move supported by other parties. “Funding the America’s Cup is surely a ‘nice to have’, rather than essential spending, in the current economic climate,” said Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei at the time.

The government was advised they’d still be legally on the hook for the money if they broke the contract, so ETNZ proceeded, but proof of economic return was a contingency and Dalton has taken pains to keep the public good in the conversation, a sharp contrast to Ellison’s attitude toward San Francisco. Dalton has said if New Zealand wins, the world should expect a sharp scaling back of costs. “We stand for nationality rule and we stand for real budget numbers that real people can raise,” he has said.

There’s definitely a sense that this could be New Zealand’s last chance to bring the Auld Mug home. If they don’t, the America’s Cup also loses. Who else will save it from American-style exclusiveness?

Originally published July 3, 2013 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Profiles of change

Profiles of change

SFBG Inauguration Issue: President Obama’s call for citizen action is already resonating

By Amanda Witherell

 

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” President Barack Obama told US citizens on his Inauguration Day. “For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.”

He’s not just cheering himself on — he’s asking his constituents to embrace what’s to come and to consider what more we can be as the individual moving parts of this incredibly complex country.

Even as far back as the Democratic National Convention, Obama turned his campaign slogan into a call to action. “All across America something is stirring. What the naysayers don’t understand is this isn’t about me — it’s about you.”

That rang in the ears of people profiled below, who changed their lives in response to his call. That inspired other changes, suggesting that the effort to elect Obama is having a spillover effect on organizing at other levels — which may become a part of how US citizens respond to his actions in office.

Expectations are high for the changes he will order and already there’s indications of what’s to come, such as the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuality, and a commitment to action on climate change.

Many are eager to see more fundamental change in areas such as war, jobs, housing, energy, and transportation — areas we explore in this issue — as well as greater engagement between the White House and the grassroots groups that helped elect Obama.

In the profiles and stories that follow, the Guardian asks questions about what and who will change and how to move past a pithy slogan to trigger the transformation this country desperately needs.

————

MARIA GOMES

Maria Gomes was committed to Obama from the beginning. “I signed up right after he announced,” said this Menlo Park resident, who joined Silicon Valley for Obama and volunteered on the campaign.

Her first big assignment was in Iowa, where she spent 10 days campaigning before the caucus along with her husband and two teenage children. For Gomes, Obama’s Iowa win was a particularly powerful and pivotal moment. “I just realized the power of the volunteers and how awesome it was,” she said. “It was clear to me after Iowa that he was going to win, so I just dove in.”

Gomes, a 60-year-old lawyer, took an eight-month unpaid leave from her work as an immigration and dependency attorney for San Mateo County to devote herself fulltime to Obama’s campaign. It was the first time she devoted her life to get a politician elected.

“In fact, I [had] steered away from politics because I don’t really like politics,” she said. “This was different. I really strongly felt the people carried this campaign. I canvassed with CEOs, doctors, young people … nobody took a back seat in this campaign. We did not take it lightly.”

She and her husband served as precinct captains in California. After the primary, she coordinated volunteers and voter registration efforts for the general election. Gomes traveled to seven states in the months leading up to Nov. 4, spending Election Day working on voter protection in Las Vegas.

“I felt that the only way he was going to get elected was if people got in there. It wasn’t just going to happen,” said Gomes, an immigrant from Cabo Verde, off the western coast of Africa.

And it’s not over for Gomes. Her whole family went to Washington DC for the inauguration, where she answered Michelle Obama’s call to volunteer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Gomes has also signed up to work on Kamala Harris’ run for attorney general and she’s still active with her fellow workers at Silicon Valley for Obama.

“About a week after the election I went to a meeting for our field office. Five hundred people were there. We brainstormed how to stay involved in his campaign,” she said. They ranked issues they’d like to see addressed by Obama and organized themselves into teams to work on messaging them to the new administration. “We received a survey from the national team…. The [Silicon Valley] team took the national survey and made it local, community by community. That’s the kind of movement that’s happening now. I’m sure it’s going on everywhere because the campaign wanted every state and every county involved.” Her husband is now on the tech team and she’s doing fundraising work for the inauguration.

“It’s not over. Nothing has stopped,” she said, adding that she believed this kind of organizing would be very present in the administration. “It’s going to be governed by the people. I plan to be involved for the next four years at whatever level I can. I still write e-mails to whoever I think can change something. I hope it will be transparent enough that we can still communicate to people higher up in the administration — all the way to Barack and Michelle Obama.”

———-

 

AARON KNAPP

Aaron Knapp graduated from law school in 2002 and spent the subsequent six years working for big corporate law firms. By 2008, he began to feel that all of the major decisions in his life had been made based on money and materialism, an certain emptiness that changed suddenly at summer’s end.

“Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was a real turning point for me,” he recalled. “The change that I needed in my life was to join in this campaign that transcended the individuals.”

He said he did what he always wanted to do: “I quit a job I don’t enjoy.” Knapp went to work instead on the Obama campaign, spending about four months in Nevada. Putting Obama in office became too important to not give it his all: “I just wanted to make sure on November 4, I could say to myself I did everything I could.”

On election night, with the feeling of victory rushing through him, there was also a kind of malaise, a feeling of “now what?”

“Our roles in the campaign were predetermined — there are a finite amount of things you do in a campaign. Make phone calls, gather data, knock on doors…. After the election, after we won…. What do we do now? Those predetermined roles are no longer set up for us,” he said.

Knapp said it required some soul searching to find the next important thing to do: “The task is to get real specific.”

He’s now writing a book and working to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed by Congress. The act would amend existing labor laws to make it easier for workers to create unions that are recognized by employers. In 2007, it passed in the House and failed in the Senate, but it was part of Obama’s platform during the primary season, and one of the reasons he garnered support from organized labor.

But, said Knapp, “It’s one of those things that’s being put on the back burner as we transition in this administration…. While Obama was championing this cause during the campaign, there’s no sign of it now.”

The waning of enthusiasm for it is indicative of how Obama’s administration may start to handle some of those crucial campaign promises that drew so many people into his fold. That piqued Knapp’s interest and reminded him of the goals of his grandfather, an auto worker for Chevrolet during the 1940s, who passed away during Knapp’s first year of law school: “My grandfather always would plead with me to do whatever I could to get the labor laws back in order. So that’s an issue that’s really important to me.”

Knapp also said that it’s important to keep the grassroots Obama movement alive by continuing to push crucial legislation that was part of his platform for change.

“It goes right to the controversial pieces of law and policy that he’s addressing,” Knapp said. “If he’s able to keep this mobilization together, that will help him significantly in getting policies through.”

———–

PAULI OJEA

Pauli Ojea, who’s about to turn 30 years old, says that she’s spent her entire adult life “voting for the loser” and advocating for change that’s been slow to happen.

A New Jersey native, Ojea came to California to work for the San Francisco Conservation Corps on environmental education programs. That lead to a position with Breast Cancer Action as a community organizer, where she found that hopeful efforts were often frustrated by political pitfalls.

Then, Ojea attended a 2004 event where she heard Van Jones speak about how a new green wave was coming and it needed to lift all boats. When a position opened with Jones’ new organization, Green for All, she applied to be a policy analyst for the Oakland-based green-jobs advocacy group.

In between the two jobs, she spent a week campaigning for Obama with her mother, a Spanish immigrant who groused that if he lost, she’d be spending more time back in Spain.

Ojea now works on federal green-jobs policy and climate change equity, and has already been deeply affected by the Obama election. “For most of my career in advocacy, there’s been this sense that we probably don’t want to work on federal policy because we’re not going to get anywhere,” she explained. “I started at Green For All with Barack Obama elected as president and we’re actually putting a lot of resources into federal policy, and there’s this whole feeling like we’re going to get somewhere. That’s shifted for me. I imagine that for a lot of other environmental and social justice advocates, there seems to be a door opening.”

She’s even more enthused after meeting with members of the Obama transition team who were tasked with a review of the Department of Energy. About 30 to 40 people, representing organizations including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council as well as renewable energy business leaders and public officials doing energy work in different states, convened in Washington DC to discuss energy policy.

“I’ve been to a lot of public agency meetings and what usually happens is you have maybe an hour and a half of presentation from the agency and maybe a half hour for all the organizations and people trying to get in their piece,” she said. “This was different. It was about a two-hour meeting and the whole time it was dedicated to hearing from the community, from businesses, from people with experience in energy efficiency. The transition team members were fully engaged, actually listening, asking questions, asking for clarifications if they didn’t understand something. They were really humble and they seemed really excited about what kinds of changes were possible. I’d never been part of a process like that.”

Ojea sees more potential than ever for the activist community in the Obama administration. “It could provide more opportunity and open more doors for what your activism is about. There’s such a difference between being used to being on the outside of the fence, behind the barricade, screaming because it’s the only way to be heard. Is that going to change? Are we going to be inside the fence?”

She recalled Obama’s campaign observation that “change doesn’t come from Washington, change comes to Washington.” She’s hoping the Obama team’s outreach will continue.

“We’re at a really strange and critical time,” Ojea said. “As Van says, in America, in terms of the economy, the floor has dropped out from under us. But with the election of Obama, the ceiling has come off. There’s a lot of opportunity, and things could also go downhill. What are we going to do?”

Originally published January 21, 2009 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Losing the West

Losing the West

“Americans have to start caring about the survival of small communities, their local towns, and their local resources”

By Amanda Witherell

159-westweb

Our society can’t continue functioning the way it does. Exploiting the natural abundance of resources in the western United States, without balancing the needs of nature, has lead to the myriad environmental problems outlined in The American West at Risk, a book recently penned by Bay Area–based geologists Richard W. Hazlett, Jane E. Nielson, and Howard G. Wilshire.

A thorough survey of environmental issues related to forestry, water, agriculture, mining, road building, outdoor recreation, waste disposal, military testing, nuclear energy, and warfare, the book was written from the perspectives of scientists, but told in such a way that the science makes the case for preservation by driving home the point that everything the human race depends on comes from nature. Ultimately, the authors stress that the solution is homegrown. “Americans have to start caring about the survival of small communities, their local towns, and their local resources.”

We caught up with Nielson and Wilshire by phone to discuss the book in anticipation of their visit to San Francisco this week.

SFBG It often seems like saving the world becomes an emotional or moral stance and less of a scientific one — or that’s how it frequently gets framed by opponents.

JANE E. NIELSON That’s right, and for no reason. Economics have become more important. One of the things we’re trying to say is the environment is the basis for our economic well-being.

SFBG Do you think that if people more fully realize that resources aren’t infinite, thriftiness will become more of the American lifestyle?

JEN It would be very desirable for people to realize that more, to have it taught in schools. How much time we have left to do that, I don’t know. I feel that once people do get an appreciation for the fact that life is going to be leaner, that the soil is really important, things can change very rapidly.

HOWARD G. WILSHIRE My pessimism is borne of the fact that they will have to respond quickly because we are on the brink of serious problems. Climate change is a big one and coping with that — the plans that are being endorsed now and pushed now by politicians and businesspeople — are that we’re going to have to find alternatives to cheap oil to keep on doing what we’re doing.

SFBG In the book you reveal a pattern of public commons being used to benefit a minority, whether its subsidies for big growers, cheap grazing rights, water rights for a handful of a farmers …

HGW It’s across the board.

SFBG How do we break these patterns of privilege, because it’s so ingrained it seems like an institutional problem?

JEN I have to tell you this is something that just sort of grew on us as we wrote the book. We knew about various subsidies, but the immensity of it and the pervasive pattern really only became clear as we progressed through the book.

SFBG It’s interesting that not only is there a pattern of subsidies, but they’re for a very small percentage of people.

JEN The whole history of land ownership in this country was intended to support the small person. The Homestead Act was supposed to give land to individuals, but most people failed at homesteading and there was no provision built in to prevent land from being gobbled up by big landowners.

SFBG So how can we flip this? Some of it is local, but for a lot of it these laws are federal.

HGW We have to take money out of the election system so we can get people free of monetary interest promoting their offices to do something useful. There are people who have the insight and the knowledge to know that we have got to stop this bleeding of our resources through subsidies.

Read the full interview with the authors here

Read Amanda Witherell’s full review of the book here

Originally published January 7, 2009 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Waning wildlife

Waning wildlife

Bay Area wildlife is already being negatively affected by a warmer world

By Amanda Witherell

Changes to ocean and air temperatures, rising sea levels, loss of habitat, scarcity of food, altered precipitation patterns, environmental asynchronicity — these are the concerns of wildlife biologists who are watching the increased effects of climate change on the thousands of plant and animal species that share the earth with people. Overall, global warming threatens a third of existing species, with 50 percent now in general decline due to a variety of human activities.

Bay Area wildlife is already being negatively affected by a warmer world, one that locally manifests in nesting birds roasting to death during heat waves, plummeting fish populations, and starving whales. Those stories were part of “Irreplaceable: Wildlife in a warming world,” a recent seminar held at the San Francisco Public Library by the Endangered Species Coalition. Maria Brown, superintendent of Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary — one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world, shared a grim account of the Cassin’s auklet.

“This little seabird you maybe never heard of may predict the future of climate change in San Francisco,” said Brown.

The auklet spends most of its life far out at sea, and flies inland to breed in burrows on remote islands and coastlines. Invasive grasses have choked many of the prime burrowing spots along the coast, so wildlife biologists have installed bird boxes as an alternative. April, the height of the annual nesting season, was an unusually warm month, with thermometers on the Farallones Islands clocking 90-degree temperatures. The bird boxes turned into ovens. “They literally cooked,” said Brown of the breeding auklets. “This is a prediction of what’s to come.”

The auklet’s story also shows how species have already been negatively impacted by human activity, even before dramatic climate change was factored into the equation. That’s a point all the speakers drove home.

“We’re dealing with these threats that already exist. Now with climate change we superimpose all these unknowns,” said Tamara Williams, a hydrologist for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a 60-mile swath of incredibly diverse land spanning from Tomales Bay to San Mateo that is home to 34 threatened or endangered species — more than any other national park in continental North America. “Those listed species were listed without considering impacts of climate change. We’re dealing with species that were in trouble already.”

And how will it affect other species that aren’t listed? Williams gave an example of the coast redwood, which relies on a foggy environment to stave off drought during summer months. Will the coast continue to be as foggy as it’s been in the past? “We wish we could predict what’s going to happen, but we can’t,” she said.

Mike Lynes of Golden Gate Audubon said the Bay Area has global significance for birds, but there’s already been a 90 percent loss of its historic wetlands — one of the primary habitats for shorebirds, which are already in a 50 percent decline. Climate change is only going to make the world harder for them, he said as he flashed maps of altered land masses in the event of a one-meter sea level rise — the modest prediction for what will happen by 2100. The maps showed that such a rise will cause wetlands in Richmond, along the Petaluma River, and in Silicon Valley to disappear. Lynes pointed out that the reconfigured coast doesn’t allow room for new wetlands — the coastlines will butt up against already heavily developed urban enclaves for people.

But, he said, expanding and preserving wetlands would benefit birds and humans — wetlands mitigate flooding and are a high-quality CO2 trap.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, didn’t sound optimistic about preserving one critical wetland — the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta — when he spoke about the collapsed Pacific salmon population.

“We know pretty much what the problems are for the Central Valley salmon. It doesn’t take a blue-ribbon panel like the governor would like to appoint,” he said. “We’ve affected most all of its lifestyle, its lifecycle, by blocking off the places where these salmon spawn,” rattling off the names of dams and rivers — Shasta, Bryant, American, Feather — that are no longer easily passable for fish returning to lay eggs where they were born.

On top of that, eggs that are successfully laid hatch into fish that then migrate downstream where they encounter the delta, an “estuary beginning to die.” There, agricultural runoff, limited freshwater, and powerful pumps all threaten fish survival.

The few salmon that make it out to sea are faced with altered currents, fewer cool water upwellings, lower quantities of food, and literal dead zones where pollution has obliterated the natural diversity of the water.

“We know what has to be done to fix it. What has been done? Absolutely nothing. Now comes global warming. How well are we going to respond now that we have global warming?” asked Grader. “This year there was no fishing for the first time since 1848,” bringing the issue back to the basic human need for food, as well.

He urged people to start demanding more from elected leaders, including a stronger Endangered Species Act with a well-funded mandate, and to begin “raising a much higher bar if we expect to have salmon on the planet, humans on the planet, in the future.”

At the start of the evening’s presentation, Representative Nancy Pelosi’s aide, Melanie Nutter, delivered a short message from the Speaker of the House calling global warming a moral challenge. Nutter didn’t stay for the presentation, however, and wasn’t there to hear speaker after speaker call out the government for lack of action and, in some cases, inappropriate action.

Tom Dey, a water policy analyst who was seated in the audience, commented that change might come from the top of Barack Obama’s administration, but local officials need to be lobbied. “We have Senator [Dianne] Feinstein and Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, who have written off the delta,” he said, bringing up their support for a $9 billion bond to build more dams.

All the speakers urged individual action as well, and Williams said the Interior Department was “committed to doing what we can to reduce our own carbon footprint.”

So far, that has been an analysis of carbon emissions throughout the national park system. GGNRA recently approved its climate action plan and is just beginning implementation of three major phases: emissions reduction, education, and adaptation, according to Laura Castellini, an environmental protection specialist. So far, that has meant an energy reduction partnership with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., an integration of climate change into interpretations, and beginning a more focused look at how sea level rise will affect GGNRA lands.

There have been hurdles, too. Castellini said most of the park’s emissions actually come from visitors, so the organization is looking at ways to enhance shuttles to and through parks as well as encouraging alternative transportation to arrive there in the first place. When asked how GGNRA was changing its own driving patterns, she said the agency was having problems getting more fuel-efficient cars. “Right now we get all of our vehicles from the General Services Administration. They have been a little slow in getting us vehicles that get us closer to our goal.” Specifically, GSA only offers flex-fuel automobiles that run on ethanol, a plant-based fuel that many environmentalists are criticizing as unsustainable. Furthermore, Castellini said there are no ethanol stations in San Francisco.

Even given the concrete actions the park system is taking, there are still a lot of big unanswered questions, said Castellini. What if Glacier National Park no longer has any glaciers? “What does it mean if our protected areas no longer protect what they were established to?” she asked.

The Irreplaceable campaign, which includes a photo exhibit (closing Dec. 31 at the Main Branch of the SFPL), is traveling the country, ending in Washington, DC, as part of a push for Congress to recognize the gravity of the problem. Mark Rockwell, director of the program, closed the seminar by saying, “The only constant in nature is change. Change is what we’re going to have to become more comfortable with.”

That includes human change.

Originally published December 31, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Tap dreams

Tap dreams

Who controls what we drink? Corporate water comes to (and from) San Francisco

By Amanda Witherell

On Dec. 2 two water conferences were held in San Francisco, attended by very different groups of people.

Downtown, in a room deep within the Hyatt Regency hotel, executives from PepsiCo, Dean Foods, GE, ConAgra, and other major companies gathered for the Corporate Water Footprinting Conference. The agenda that the conference made public included a presentation by Nestlé on assessing water-related risks in communities, Coca-Cola’s aggressive environmental water-neutrality goal, and MillerCoors plan to use less water to make more beer.

But what these giant corporations, which are seeking to control more and more of the world’s water, really discussed the public will never know. Only four media representatives were permitted to attend — all from obscure trade journals not trafficked by the typical reader — and both the Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle were denied media passes.

The event was sponsored by IBM, and tickets were $1,500 — out of reach for many citizens and environmentalists who might have liked to attend.

And why might people take such a keen interest in the kind of corporate conference that probably occurs routinely in cities throughout the world?

Because there’s almost universal agreement that the world is in a water crisis — and that big businesses see a huge opportunity in the privatization of water.

Only one half of 1 percent of all the water in the world is freshwater. Of that, about half is already polluted. Although water is a $425 billion industry worldwide — ranking just behind electricity and oil — one in six people still don’t have access to a clean, safe glass of it. If the pace of use and abuse remains, the 1.2 billion people living in water-stressed areas will balloon to more than 3 billion by 2030.

That includes California. On June 4, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought after two lackluster seasons of Sierra snowfall. Scientists are predicting the same this winter. You can see how the state is mishandling the issue by looking at some recent legislation. Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have proposed a $9.3 billion bond to build more dams, canals, and infrastructure. At the same time, the governor vetoed a bill that would have required bottled water companies to report how much water they’re actually drawing out of the ground.

In that context, while the big privatizers were hobnobbing at the Hyatt, activists were attending a very different event, the “Anti-Corporate Water Conference,” held at the Mission Cultural Center. It was free and open to the public and the media. More than 100 people gathered to hear a cadre of international organizations share information on how to keep this basic human right — water — in the hands of people.

Speakers included Wenonah Hauter, director of Washington, DC-based Food and Water Watch; Amit Srivastava of Global Resistance, a group that works to expose international injustices by Coca-Cola; Mark Franco, head of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, which lives among water bottling plants near Mount Shasta; and Mateo Nube, a native of La Paz, Bolivia, and the director of Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project.

Nube spoke about water as a commons, requiring stewardship, justice, and democracy. “We’re literally running out of water. Unless we change the way we manage, distribute, and consume water, we’re going to have a real crisis on our hands,” he said. Nube’s remarks tied together the tensions of control and revolt, democracy and privatization, ecological balance and human need — all enormous issues, all related to water and water scarcity, which the Worldwatch Institute has called “the most under-appreciated global environmental challenge of our time.”

BASIC NEED, INFINITE MARKET

Water is a basic human need, perhaps even more important than clean air, food, and shelter. People will never strike against water and stop drinking.

And that means, from a capitalistic point of view, it’s a perfect, nearly infinite market. “As water analysts note, water is hot not only because of the growing need for clean water but because demand is never affected by inflation, recession, interest rates or changing tastes,” wrote Maude Barlow in her 2007 book Blue Covenant.

If scarcity drives price, anyone with a stake in the water industry stands to gain from an increasingly water-stressed world. As Barlow also reported, “In 1990, about 51 million people got their water from private companies, according to water analysts. That figure is now more than 300 million.” By controlling the resource and choosing when and if they engage with the public it allows some of the biggest water abusers to set the terms of a critical ongoing debate.

The fact that humans need water raises important questions: should water be classified as a basic human right available to everyone? Is water part of the commons? If so, should corporations be allowed to control the taps or bottle it, mark up the price, and sell it for profit?

Not much polling has been done on people’s opinions of water, but during 35 informal on-the-street interviews conducted by the Guardian, 31 people said it is a basic human right. The other four said it was subject to the laws of supply and demand.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and Barlow, who has been appointed special advisor on water to the UN, will be addressing the General Assembly on the fact that water is still missing from the original 30 Articles.

“The reason that water was not included in the original 30 Articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that no one at that time could conceive there would be a problem with water,” Barlow told the Guardian. “It’s only in the last 10 years that the concept of water as a human right has come to the fore.”

The problem has its roots in the inherent conflict between conservation and profit. Saving water is relatively cheap, but there’s no money to be made by eliminating waste. Developing expensive new water sources, though, is a potential private gold mine.

As Barlow points out in her book, technology is becoming an integrated part of the solution to the water crisis. Desalination plants, water recycling facilities, and nanotechnology are all being thrown at the problem — in some cases before a full assessment of use and abuse has occurred.

While technological solutions may be warranted in some places, Barlow worries that relying on them bypasses any true attempts at efficiency and conservation. “I’m not going to say there’s no place for water cleanup,” she told the Guardian. “What I’m concerned about is we’re going to put all the eggs in the cleanup basket and not nearly enough in the conservation and source protection basket. What I’m concerned about is the idea that technology will fix it. Meanwhile, don’t stop polluting, don’t stop the over-extraction, allow the commercial abuse of water, allow the agricultural abuse of water because what the heck, there’s tons of money to be made cleaning it up. I think that’s the wrong way of coming at it.”

The technological fix is one way the state’s water crisis may slowly seep into private sector control, and a couple of examples show what can happen when private companies don’t play nice with the public, how citizens constantly battle with state agencies to enforce regulations, and how the public process could and should be honored.

GET THE SALT OUT

In theory, California has plenty of water — its 700 miles of coastline border the giant reservoir known as the Pacific Ocean. But humans can’t drink salt water — and some companies see a nice industrial niche in that dilemma. Build a plant that takes out the salt, and suddenly there’s plenty for all.

Several small desalination facilities already exist throughout the state, mostly cleaning water reservoirs brined by agriculture. But another 30 desalination plants have been proposed for the coast as a way to deal with future water shortages.

One is in Carlsbad, near San Diego, where Poseidon Resources is constructing the only large-scale desalination plant that the state has permitted to date. It’s a 10-year-old project that, so far, doesn’t even have a pipe in the ground.

Despite Poseidon’s ability to grease the wheels with local officials, the facility is controversial. It sits next to a fossil-fuel burning peaker power plant, and will be desalinating the power plant’s discharge water, thus shielding its negative environmental impacts by claiming its the power plant that’s sucking up seawater and damaging marine life — the desalination plant is just making use of the wasted water.

That argument doesn’t sit well with Joe Geever of the Surfrider Foundation, who pointed out that part of the power plant is scheduled for a retrofit to air-cooling, and talk is of a potential state ban on using water for this type of cooling system. There are other more environmentally benign seawater extractions, he said, like drilling and capturing subsurface sources, that the desalination plant could have used.

Mostly, he contends, the plant subverts conservation. “Per capita consumption of water in San Diego is much higher than other places,” he said. “In southern California we waste an enormous amount of water on growing grass. There’s a lot to be saved.”

Poseidon, a private company, is footing the bill for the plant’s construction, but the financing scheme is predicated on a future increase in the cost of water. As Poseidon’s Scott Maloni explained to the Guardian, the contract with the San Diego Water Authority states that the cost of desalinated water can never be more than the cost of imported water. It can, however, walk in lock-step with it — and by all accounts the price to pipe water to sunny southern California is going to increase. Maloni said his company was taking an initial loss but would start paying itself back as imported water costs increase. Eventually rates will be set halfway between the real cost of desalinated water and the higher cost of imported water.

What kinds of guarantees are there that this will happen? Nobody knows. “They’ll say anything, but when it comes to showing you a contract, we’ve never seen anything,” said Adam Scow of Food and Water Watch. “There’s a lack of regulation with a private company controlling the water.”

The plant now has no less than three lawsuits hanging over it, all filed with state agencies in charge of permitting and oversight — the Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission, and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. All basically contend that the state didn’t do enough to require Poseidon to implement the most environmentally sound technology that’s least harmful to marine organisms, as required by state law.

Geever stresses that desalination is an energy-intensive way to get water. “Every gallon of water you conserve is energy conserved,” he said. “Not only could San Diego do more conservation, but they don’t recycle any wastewater to potable water standards. That’s much less energy intensive.”

Poseidon counters by saying that it invested $60 million in energy efficiency measures for the plant and will be installing solar panels on the roof. Perhaps most telling is that the company sees itself as vending reliability. “It’s not the current cost of water the San Diego Water Authority is concerned about, but the future cost for an acre-foot,” Maloni said. “There’s a dollar figure you can put on reliability. Public agencies are willing to pay us a little more for that.”

Which gets back to a comment Barlow made about capitalizing on crisis. “We are frightened half to death and everyone who looks at it, right-wing or left-wing, sees that. … They use the crisis to say we have no alternative except to go into massive desalination plants.”

And, as Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute pointed out, San Diego wasn’t calling for proposals to bring it more water. “Poseidon wanted to build a desalination plant and it came to San Diego. That’s one way to do it. The other way is for a municipality to say we want a desalination plant, we’re opening it up to bids, let’s have a competition. That didn’t happen, and instead we have one contractor.”

Geever added, “Poseidon has been really successful at lobbying politicians and convincing regulators to give them permits.”

Which points to one of the chronic ills of managing water systems, particularly in California where water has always been political. “In the 20th century decisions about water were made by white males in back rooms,” said Gleick. “It solved a lot of problems, but it led to a lot of environmental problems. The days when water decisions made in back rooms should be over. And they aren’t over, and that’s part of the problem.”

DELTA BLUES

Nowhere is that more obvious than the delta, where the state’s two most prominent rivers — the Sacramento and the San Joaquin — meet the Pacific Ocean just north of San Francisco. It’s ground zero for one of the most charged political fights in the state.

Two-thirds of California’s water comes from the delta. About 80 percent of it goes to cropland, watering about half of the state’s $35 billion agricultural industry, much of it through historic water rights that have been granted to a small lobby of powerful growers who sell their surplus rights for profit. Another 18 percent goes to urban water needs, and — in spite of the fact that this is the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America — only 2 percent of the water remains for natural environmental flows.

Delta issues are legion and begin at the headwaters of the Sacramento River, near Mount Shasta, a land Mark Franco describes as an Eden. “The deer, salmon, and acorns that we eat — everything that we need is there,” Franco told the Guardian. “It’s such a beautiful place. Now they’re drying it, that Eden.”

Franco is head of the Winnemem Wintu, or “little water people” tribe, and is fighting the first phase of water diversions from the Sacramento River, 200 miles north of the capitol where companies like Coca-Cola, Crystal Geyser, and now, potentially, Nestlé, pump millions of gallons a year into small plastic bottles and ship it around the country to sell in groceries and convenience stores.

“Here in the US, people have become soft. They’ve become so used to just having things directly handed to them that they no longer understand where their water comes from,” he said at the anti-corporate water conference. “Realize this: those springs on Mount Shasta are not an infinite supply of water.”

After the Sacramento feeds the bottled-water companies, what remains wends its way south, with more diverted directly to farmers and into the State Water Project, which pipes it to drier southern regions. What’s left empties into the delta.

A lack of fresh water, flagging environmental preservation, increasing agricultural needs, and leveed island communities that are seismically unsafe and sinking, all mean the delta is failing as an ecosystem, and has been for some time. Chinook salmon and delta smelt populations are collapsing to such an extent that court orders have halted a percentage of water diversions and salmon fisherman were forced to dock their boats this year. Levees are crumbling, causing islands to flood and raising ire among landowners. Farmers with historic water rights are fiercely protective of them, while environmentalists are lobbying them to use more conservation and efficiency.

Nearly all stakeholders agree that the status quo won’t hold.

The challenge is finding a solution. Ending exports seems impossible, limiting them means massive investments in other resources. No one agrees on what will really save the endangered salmon and smelt or improve conditions for the 700 other native plants and animals.

In 2006, the governor convened a seven-member Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, which released a strategic plan in October calling for balancing co-equal goals of ecological restoration and water reliability.

The plan also specifically recommended a dual conveyance system similar to what was proposed in a study by the Public Policy Institute of California. It combines some through-delta pumping with a peripheral canal around the delta. PPIC crunched the numbers and determined that the canal was economically better than any of the four options they had weighed.

The peripheral canal idea isn’t new, but it’s been controversial since it was first proposed almost three decades ago. The plan was ushered by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, but defeated by voters in 1982 after a major organizing effort by environmentalists. (Whether voters will cast ballots on it this time remains to be seen, though the Attorney General’s Office, now headed by Brown, has counseled the Department of Water Resources, which is charged with implementing whatever plan is decided upon, that a vote of the people isn’t required.)

Shortly after its release in July, the PPIC report was criticized by five elected Congressional Democrats — Reps. George Miller, Ellen Tauscher, Doris Matsui, Mike Thompson, and Jerry McNerney. “The PPIC report should not be used to ignore the many things that can be done today to restore Delta health, including providing necessary fish flows, undertaking critical ecosystem restoration projects, and making major investments in water recycling and improved conservation measures,” Miller said.

Numbers used by the PPIC report have also been criticized by Jeffrey Michael, a business professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. In an analysis of PPIC’s work, Michael said the group had used inflated population figures, as well as high costs for desalinated and recycled water, therefore resulting in a report that made it look like it was too expensive to end delta exports altogether and replace them with other water sources.

The PPIC said the state’s population would be 65 million by 2050, that desalinated water costs $2,072 per acre-foot, and recycled water goes for $1,480 per acre-foot — numbers that were scaled to 2008 dollars from 1995 figures. Michael contends that if the numbers were adjusted to reflect actual costs, the peripheral canal wouldn’t look like such a sweet deal.

Maloni, of Poseidon Resources, said the desalinated water cost would be $950 per acre-foot for San Diego, including a $250 subsidy. A similar plant the company is hoping to construct in Huntington Beach will be about $50 more per acre foot.

When asked if $2,100 per acre-foot was a reasonable figure for desalinated water in California, Maloni said, “That’s nuts.”

What does all this illustrate? That even among a small cast of purported experts there’s little consensus on several fundamental issues.

Adding more fuel to the fires of public skepticism is that a third of the funding for the PPIC report came from Stephen D. Bechtel Jr. — heir to the Bechtel Corp., which has come under tremendous criticism for its moves to privatize water around the world.

“That is very upsetting to us. They would stand to gain a lot with a contract to build a peripheral canal,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta.

PPIC’s Ellen Hanak said the funding didn’t affect their findings. “It’s really much more linked to the fact that the foundation is really interested in the environment and water is a part of that.”

Linda Strean, the PPIC’s public affairs officer, told the Guardian that it was Bechtel himself who wrote the check, not the foundation. It’s the first time Bechtel has given to PPIC.

But considering Bechtel’s past performance managing water, it doesn’t inspire much confidence.

BECHTEL’S BIG ADVENTURES

In April, Cesar Cardenas Ramirez and César Augusto Parada, traveled from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to San Francisco. The two men were on a fact-finding mission: they wanted to know more about the company that owns Interagua, the company that is supposed to deliver the drinking water that only occasionally comes out of the taps in their homes.

One of the first things they discovered is that 50 Beale St. doesn’t necessarily advertise itself as the home of Bechtel — one of the world’s largest private corporations, with global construction and infrastructure contracts amounting to billions of dollars annually.

In Guayaquil, water service has been problematic for decades. During the 1990s the country received a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to improve basic infrastructure. The money was given directly to the government, but like many World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans granted throughout Latin America at the time, it was predicated on an eventual privatization of the water service contract.

The money helped — water conditions improved, and the city seemed to be on track to bring service to outlying areas. But in 2000, the city, abiding by the loan conditions, requested bids to run the water and sewage systems. No bids were received. Leaders scaled back provisions that kept some control in the hands of the government, and they got one response. In 2001, Interagua, a company owned by Bechtel, took over water service.

“Since the contract, nobody has been able to drink the tap water,” Cardenas, who represents the Citizen’s Observatory for Public Services, a watchdog group formed in Guayaquil to monitor the water contract between the government and Interagua, told the Guardian. “Prior to the contract you could drink the tap water, although there were some sections of the city where the plumbing was old and inadequate.”

Even though Interagua is managing a public service, because it’s a private company, information about its exact responsibilities have been elusive. The Observatory does know that Interagua pays nothing for the water it draws from the local river, is guaranteed a 17 percent rate of return, and that it has a minimum mandate to expand service. What’s also known is its citizens’ experience — during the first six months of the contract, some rates were increased 180 percent.

Bechtel’s SF office refused to meet with the two men or answer their phone calls, e-mails, and letters, which highlights the inherent problem with corporate control of water — a lack of accountability. Bechtel didn’t answer any of the Guardian‘s detailed questions regarding the Interagua contract, and only provided a three-page letter originally drafted to the World Bank in December 2007, that paints a rosy scene of productivity and accomplishment in Guayaquil.

“At present, over 2.1 million residents of Guayaquil (84 percent of the population) are connected to the municipal potable water system, and more than 90 percent of the customers have 24-hour per day, uninterrupted service.” The letter goes on to state that coverage is expanding with new connections, water quality meets public health standards, prices have decreased, and procedures are in place to help customers who have higher than average bills.

“There are things that have improved, yes,” said Emily Joiner, who spent last summer in Ecuador and is author of the book Murky Waters, a history of water issues in Guayaquil published by the Observatory in 2007. But the bottom line is that citizens pay for the service, but they can’t drink the water.

“You still don’t drink the water anywhere in the city at any time,” said Joiner. People buy bottled water or boil it. “Bottled water is expensive, as a percentage of income,” she said.

Whereas water service was previously priced more like a progressive income tax, with the lowest consumers paying the lowest rates, Interagua has flattened out the rate structure and now big water consuming businesses are paying the same as residents. “It’s pricing some families out of the market,” Joiner said. “It’s great for business. It’s not great for people who don’t have enough water to bathe or wash their clothes.”

The Observatory would like the water system turned back over to the government. The local authority, which once ran the water service and is now charged with overseeing Interagua, fined the company $1.5 million for not meeting goals for expanding service. According to Joiner, there’s been no follow-up on whether the company is meeting those goals now.

The Observatory also filed complaints with the World Bank, which attempted a settlement, but, according to Joiner, representatives from Interagua refused to sit down at the same table as Cardenas. “The process stalled,” Joiner said. “Interagua said the issue had become too politicized. César [Cardenas] has a reputation for rabble-rousing, and at the time he was lobbying for constitutional amendments outlawing privatization. Interagua considered it negotiating with a hostile party.”

A new constitution was passed in September that does, in fact, outlaw privatization, but still allows existing contracts to be honored if they pass a government audit.

In the meantime, the local rumor is that Bechtel is arranging to sell Interagua to another company. Bechtel wouldn’t confirm this, and no one could say more beyond what was reported in speculative articles in Guayaquil’s local newspapers.

It wouldn’t be the first time Bechtel bailed on an international water contract. In what was part of a massive privatization of a variety of Bolivia’s national services, in 1996 the World Bank granted the city of Cochabamba a $14 million loan to improve water service for its 600,000 citizens. Like Ecuador, there were strings attached: a future privatization of the city’s water service. It was sold to Aguas del Tunari, the sole bidder — also a subsidiary of Bechtel. Almost immediately rates increased by nearly 200 percent for some families. In January 2000, people stopped paying, started rallying, and the water war began.

Led by La Coordinadora for the Defense of Water and Life, organizers shut down the city, physically blockading roads and demanding the regional governor review the contract. The battle went on into February, resulting in injuries to 175 people and the death of one. Originally the government announced a rate rollback for six months, but the Bechtel contract remained. “The [Bechtel] contract was very hard to get a hold of,” Omar Fernandez of the Coordinadora told Jim Schulz of the Democracy Center. “It was like a state secret.” Once they did examine a copy of it, Bechtel’s sweetheart deal for a guaranteed 16 percent profit was exposed and people demanded a full repeal.

Eventually, the residents got it, and though decent water service in Cochabamba is still elusive, the water war has become the poster child for successful grassroots activism.

“One of the most inspiring struggles around community control of water happened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in the year 2000, when international corporation Bechtel — based here in San Francisco — privatized the municipal water system and hiked the water rates for citizens by 30 to 40 percent. Thankfully, there was a popular upsurge. It was a very bitter struggle and people succeeded in turning control back to public hands.

“This success changed the public debate in Bolivia,” said Mateo Nube, a native of La Paz, Bolivia, who spoke at the anti-corporate water conference. “People said ‘enough’ to privatization, enough to corporate control. We need to seize control of our government.”

You don’t have to go to Bolivia to find water-privatization battles. In 2002, catching wind that the city of Stockton was on the brink of privatizing its water services, the Concerned Citizens Coalition rallied signatures for a ballot measure against the idea. Weeks before the vote, the Stockton City Council narrowly approved one of the west’s largest water privatization deals — a 20-year, $600 million contract with OMI-Thames. The ballot measure still received 60 percent approval, and activists took the issue to court arguing there hadn’t been a proper CEQA process. In January 2004, according to the Concerned Citizens Coalition Web site, “San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Bob McNatt ruled in our favor — we won on all points. The judge ruled that privatizing, in and of itself, needed environmental review.” The city appealed, but eventually dropped the suit and OMI walked away in March 2008.

PUBLIC AGENCY, PUBLIC PROCESS

Bechtel also failed to hold on to a more local contract, a $45 million deal with the SFPUC to manage the first phase of its multibillion dollar Water System Improvement Project. After a 2001 story by the Guardian exposed Bechtel’s exorbitant billing for services that resulted in few gains (see “Bechtel’s $45 million screw job,” 9/12/01), the contract was revoked by the Board of Supervisors and granted to Parsons, which runs it now.

Years later, in 2007, when the SFPUC released a draft of the Environmental Impact Report for the $4.4 billion project, massive public outcry arose against it. The plan outlined major seismic upgrades for miles of aging water infrastructure between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, where the headwaters of the Tuolumne River are captured by a giant dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley and gravity-fed to the city. While the EIR projected little additional water use for San Franciscans, it called for diverting an additional 25 million gallons of water per day from the Tuolumne to meet the needs of 23 wholesale customers in San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties.

The Pacific Institute and Tuolumne River Trust collaborated on a study showing that 100 percent of the anticipated water increases were for those wholesale customers — most of it for outdoor water use. The SFPUC hadn’t factored in any increased conservation, efficiency, or recycling measures, nor had it independently questioned the growth numbers.

The EIR received upwards of 1,000 public comments, more than any other document ever generated by the SFPUC. Environmental groups rallied, writing editorials, flooding public meetings, and asserting a different vision of the Bay Area’s water future and stewardship of its primary, pristine water resource.

And it worked. “We got about 95 percent of everything we wanted out of the WSIP process,” said Jessie Raeder of the Tuolumne River Trust. “We do consider the WSIP a huge win for the environmental community … because we were able to organize and get a seat at the table and discuss this with the PUC.” She said the Bay Area Water Stewards, a coalition of environmental groups, met with the PUC nearly every month and slowly the initial additional river diversions were pared down to a possible 2 million gallons. Also, a cap has been placed on any diversions until 2018, which gives agencies time to implement conservation and efficiency measures.

The SFPUC feels positive about it, too. “We are really thrilled that the program EIR was approved by the Planning Commission, approved by the PUC, and not appealed,” said spokesperson Tony Winnicker. He said there were really controversial elements and the trick was balancing the competing interests of wholesale customers and environmental groups. “It took a really hard-nosed look at our demand projections and what we could really do for conservation.” He concedes there are still controversies, in particular over the Calaveras Dam, which the Alameda Creek Alliance opposes. “It would be hubris for us to say it’s been a complete success.”

“This is a process that would only occur through a public agency,” Winnicker added.

“What we saw with the WSIP was a solution where everything was fully transparent,” Raider added. “It was all a public process, and there was plenty of opportunity for public input.”

Which is really what a public water utility should be doing. “When you’re talking about public water, it isn’t them, it’s us,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Food and Water Watch. “A public water system is only as good as the people involved with it.”

DRINK LOCALLY

“This conference isn’t a public event,” organizer Andrew Slavin told the Guardian when we tried to gain admittance to the Corporate Water Footprinting Conference. While water activists rallied outside deriding the corporations inside for greenwashing their images, Slavin said that the fact that the conference wasn’t open to the public proved that the corporations weren’t trying to do environmental PR. “If they’re trying to do greenwashing this isn’t the place to do it. The aim is to try to share information.”

Slavin pointed to representatives speaking from the Environmental Protection Agency, the SFPUC, and NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund. From an environmental perspective, if these companies are going to be using water, isn’t it worth working with them to reduce their impacts?

“There are companies I call water hunters,” explained Maude Barlow. “They destroy water to make their products and profit. Unfortunately, some of the companies that are leading this conference are bottled water companies. I don’t know how you can become ‘water neutral’ if your life’s work is draining aquifers.”

Many water activists consider bottled water the low-hanging fruit as far as getting people to change behaviors. San Francisco banned the use of tax dollars to buy it, and the SFPUC has been promoting its pristine Hetch Hetchy tap water, gravity-fed from Yosemite National Park. “Bottled water companies are basically engaged in a multiyear campaign. Their marketing approach is you can’t trust the tap, your public water isn’t safe,” Winnicker said.

Slavin said he thought it was weird to protest the conference, because the corporations are genuinely trying to avoid conflicts. He pointed to a company called Future 500 that has created a business out of mediating between corporations and communities. “It’s hard for companies to speak to people so they use other companies to do it,” Slavin said.

In fact, representatives from Future 500 appeared to be the only conference attendees who stepped outside to watch the protest.

“I think it’s great,” Erik Wohlgemuth of Future 500, said of the protest. “I think press should have been there. I think more of these voices should have been there. My personal view is they need to come up with some sort of reduced rate to allow these nonprofits to attend these kinds of conferences.”

Jeremy Shute, a representative from global infrastructure company AECOM who was standing with Wohlgemuth, said, “There’s a tremendous amount of research and thought going into these questions and it would be great if that knowledge could be shared.”

But is that going to happen when private companies cite “proprietary interest” as a reason for not sharing more information about their businesses? Or when they don’t have to abide by public records laws, leaving their contracts shielded from public scrutiny? Or when they refuse to answer calls from their constituencies and the media? In which case, should those advocates be in the same room as some of the biggest water users in the world? When pressed with the question, Slavin seemed stumped. “Why didn’t we invite them?” he asked. Then, after a long, thoughtful pause, he said, “I don’t know.”

Originally published December 10, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

The American imagination

The American imagination

Rose Aguilar looks for change on Red Highways

By Amanda Witherell

If you’re one of the 200,000 San Franciscans who voted for Barack Obama, maybe you’re staring at that map of red and blue states wondering, “How could 56 million people vote for John McCain? Why is there still this incredible swath of crimson belting our country?”

Similar questions have been burning in the minds of liberals since the 2000 election. In 2005, San Francisco resident Rose Aguilar turned them into a quest: “One night, after spending several hours online, sending articles to friends who were probably sick of me barraging them with e-mails and practically falling over political books and magazines I had yet to open, I realized it was time to leave my comfort zone. I needed to turn off my computer and get out into the streets to find out why people vote the way they do and find out if we’re as divided as we’re led to believe.”

Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland (PoliPoint Press, 221 pages, $15.95) is the result of Aguilar’s six-month road trip through reliably red states to ask people why they identify with one party over another, or vote for certain candidates, or don’t vote at all.

Aguilar, the host of Your Call, a public interest radio show on KALW, kept her mic keyed up and conducted hundreds of interviews as she and her boyfriend, Ryan, traveled by van through Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Montana. Some of these talks are with the hotel employees and restaurant owners one might typically encounter on a cross-country road trip. But Aguilar and her partner also venture to places they wouldn’t normally go — places that are mainstays in the lives of many Americans. Malls and churches provide the setting for much of the narrative, but the duo also attend their first gun show, chill out at a water park, and take in a bull-riding event. Nearly every experience is charged with politics — even at Oklahoma’s Bullnanza, Aguilar discovers riders who are heavily sponsored by the US Army.

Aguilar’s easy prose style, no doubt fine-tuned by her daily radio conversations, makes this part-travelogue, part-political inquiry a quick read, with a fine balance of visual observation, first-person anecdote (she outlines the challenges of roadside dining when you’re a vegan), and political fine-tuning. Aguilar discovers that most people like to talk about politics, but feel they shouldn’t. In Kerrville, Texas, she meets two closet Democrats, one who is a registered Republican because there are never any Democrats on the local ballot.

The phenomenon of closeted politics recurs as Aguilar travels deep into red state territory. She also criticizes the media for failing to adequately portray America’s nuances. “We breathe the same air, we live under the same political system, we’ve probably seen the same television and news shows, and most of us grew up going to public schools,” she writes. “Yet because we might vote differently once every four years, we find ourselves stereotyped in the national media and separated by red and blue borders.”

While exposing the impact of political peer pressure, Aguilar also encounters jarring social inconsistencies — billboard advertisements for strip clubs compete with signs for mega-churches throughout Dallas. With an awareness of such juxtapositions, she seeks a deeper truth in her talks with gay conservative environmentalists in Montana, Republican funders of local Planned Parenthood chapters, and a pro-war Texas vegan. Their tales make her book an important piece of evidence on America’s political complexity. Red Highways uncovers a country full of fierce individuals prone to herd mentality.

Aguilar finds islands of unquestionable compassion. Speaking with churchgoer Bob Bartlett after a service at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church in Austin, she asks him: ‘I noticed that this is a progressive church. What does that mean exactly?

‘It means we’re open to everybody’s thoughts and we’re open to everyone, no matter what your nationality is or what your religion is or what your sex is. We like all of it.’

“CNN or MSNBC should send a reporter here to challenge stereotypes by doing a segment about religious Republicans who attend progressive churches in conservative-leaning states. This one wasn’t hard to find. There must be others,” she concludes.

In a Sept. 29, New Yorker article revisiting Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, a collection of essays written more than 50 years ago, Louis Menand wrote, “A key perception in The Liberal Imagination is that most human beings are not ideologues. Intellectual coherence is not a notable feature of their politics. People’s political opinions may be rigid; they are not necessarily rigorous. They tend to float up out of some mixture of sentiment, custom, moral aspiration, and aesthetic pleasingness.”

Menand goes on to point out that such assumptions need critical attention. Perhaps now, as the country decompresses from two years of campaigning that resulted in the election of the first black president to lead this diverse, complex, and deeply wounded populace, as people who voted Republican are already speaking about their pride in this historic moment, and as political commentators are already talking about the “purpleness” of the country and blurring of hard lines between states and political stances, writers and reporters like Aguilar will start to look more closely at who we really are. Red Highways deserves a place in the library of modern political Americana.

Originally published November 12, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Money is power

Money is power

PG&E spent a record-breaking $10.3 million against Prop H — more than $53 per vote

By Amanda Witherell

While the latest public power proposal was soundly defeated at the polls, the apparent failure of a pair of electricity generation initiatives backed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is fueling an existing plan to create more city-owned energy projects.

Proposition H, which would have moved the city toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 and allowed public power to help meet that goal, lost Nov. 4 by more than 20 percentage points. PG&E spent a record-breaking $10.3 million against the measure, or more than $53 per vote as of the Nov. 10 tally.

For that kind of money, said campaign finance expert Bob Stern of the Center for Government Studies, “they could have taken every voter out and bought them an expensive meal.” But, he said, that’s a pittance for a company like PG&E. “They knew spending $10 million was going to save them a bunch of money.”

Two days after the election, PG&E announced a 9 percent increase in year-to-date profits over last year, boosted partly by a 6 percent rate increase PG&E implemented Oct. 1, which it argued was needed to cover the increased cost of natural gas.

Prop. H would have moved San Francisco away from volatile fossil fuel prices, although the city is still hoping to procure 51 percent of its energy needs from renewables by 2017 through the community choice aggregation (CCA) program.

Meanwhile a plan to retrofit the Mirant Potrero Power Plant is looking shakier since Nov. 4, when the Board of Supervisors tabled legislation that would have authorized the Mayor’s Office and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to negotiate the deal.

Prior Land Use and Economic Development committee hearings showed that retrofitting the plant to run on natural gas instead of diesel may not be as technologically or economically feasible as suggested in a report commissioned by Mirant (see “Power possibilities,” Nov. 5).

But a recent report on CCA outlines ways the city may be able to procure the baseload energy demand required by the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) without retrofitting Mirant or building new peak-demand fossil fuel plants (known as “peakers”), as city officials originally proposed.

The report by Local Power, the lead CCA consultant hired by the city, suggests that the SFPUC’s current plan to upgrade natural gas steam boilers in large downtown buildings can be modified to capture waste heat and turn it into energy, a process known as cogeneration.

The city Department of the Environment has already identified 106 MW of potential energy — about the same amount Cal-ISO is requiring the city to have on hand for energy reliability. Although this isn’t renewable energy because it’s capturing wasted gas heat, “it’s really clean, good quality brown power,” said Paul Fenn of Local Power, noting that it makes use of something that is currently being wasted.

Local Power’s draft report, which lays the groundwork for what the city needs to do before 2010 to make CCA work, also disputes the conclusions of a tidal power feasibility study conducted for the SFPUC. In July, URS Corp. reported that tidal power in the Golden Gate would cost between 80 cents and $1.40 per kW-hour and only generate a little over 1 MW of power. “We do not consider a tidal power project located in the vicinity of the Golden Gate to be commercially feasible at this time,” the report states.

Local Power contends that URS undervalued the potential energy by using computer modeling rather than actual tidal data and overlooked the strongest area for building an underwater turbine. It also failed to account for public financing at a lower interest rate, which would make city-owned tidal power much cheaper.

“We are confident you can get 10 MW,” Fenn said. “The whole thing was modeled on PG&E ownership.”

Local Power recommended the city get actual tidal data from the best spot and run the numbers again. “The ocean is the ultimate energy resource for San Francisco,” said Fenn, who compared the challenge of constructing this kind of infrastructure to the Hoover Dam.

Newsom, who opposed Prop. H but still claims to support CCA, remains committed to tidal power. “Mayor Newsom supports advancing a tidal project at the mouth of the bay,” his spokesperson, Joe Arellano, wrote in an e-mail.

The rollout of CCA is expected in 2010, when the city issues a request for proposals from companies interested in building or supplying energy. Several companies have already responded to a request for information. CCA is slated to include a 150 MW wind farm, 31 MW of solar, 103 MW of local distributed generation, and 107 MW of efficiency technologies. Funding would come from $1.2 billion in renewable energy bonds that have already been approved.

Local Power’s report includes concrete actions the city can take, including a plan to finally make Hetch Hetchy power available to citizens, a recommendation that the wind farm be built in the Delta for easy access to the Transbay Cable — a new 400 MW, 59-mile transmission line between Pittsburg and San Francisco that’s scheduled to be completed in 2010 — and urging the city to petition the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for so-called public good charges collected from ratepayers that currently go to PG&E’s energy efficiency programs.

“We’re trying to put ideas on the table for the RFPs,” said Fenn, who stressed that the city should make it as easy as possible for CCA to get underway, a goal that will require a lot more cooperation between departments. For example, the report outlines several hindrances to getting renewable energy up and running, from permit hassles to delayed interconnections to PG&E’s grid.

“Where we see problems in the city for permitting and zoning, we can seek to change them now,” Fenn said.

That chance may come soon. The Land Use and Economic Development Committee is hearing legislation Nov. 12 to require conditional use permitting for all power plants greater than 10 MW. Though the legislation originally targeted the Mirant plant, the Planning Department, in its review of the draft legislation, suggested that all power plants be subject to the additional review. Sup. Aaron Peskin, who sponsored the legislation with Sup. Sophie Maxwell, suggested the change wasn’t appropriate. “It just means more public process.”

But, Fenn said, “To set standards based on pre-CCA era is at this point confusing. Like [Sup.] Ross [Mirkarimi] said, the CCA program should be the unifying principle of energy policy in San Francisco. Integrating all the pieces is indeed the entire secret of making all the parts perform better so that we can achieve the required meet-or-beat-PG&E-rates outcome.”

Mirkarimi told us the program could obviate retrofitting Mirant or pursuing the peakers. “CCA still has not been taken seriously enough by the SFPUC or the Newsom administration.”

Originally published November 11, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Power possibilities

Power possibilities

The city’s energy policy is still uncertain

By Amanda Witherell

San Francisco’s energy future is in flux. On Nov. 4, voters decided the fate of Proposition H, a plan for 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. On the same day, the Board of Supervisors was set to consider a proposal from Mayor Gavin Newsom to retrofit the 32-year-old Mirant Potrero power plant to meet a state mandate for local electricity generation.

The results of both votes occurred after the Guardian deadline, but either way, the city’s energy policy is uncertain, particularly after serious doubts about the viability of the mayor’s proposal were raised at an Oct. 22 Land Use and Economic Development Committee hearing.

The retrofit was hastily developed as an alternative to longstanding plans to replace heavily polluting units of the Mirant plant with new, cleaner, city-owned peaker plants. That plan was derailed after a meeting in May between Newsom and seven Pacific Gas and Electric Co. executives, who were apparently concerned about the city generating its own power.

The Mayor’s office calls the retrofit a “bridge” to a renewable energy future and contends it can be cheaper than and as clean as the city’s peakers. Yet at the hearing, Mike Martin, who’s evaluating the retrofit project for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said no retrofits have ever reached the emissions goals cited in Newsom’s proposal.

Jeff Henderson, senior project manager for Mirant, defended the $80 million price tag for the project (which is about $30 million cheaper than the city’s plan) but also said that they were “giving a price on a project that’s never been done before.” Martin said the permits alone would be twice the price stated in a Mirant-commissioned feasibility study.

Chair of the committee Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who represents the district where the plant is sited, cast cost aside, saying that human lives and the lowest possible emissions were more important to her. Her district has the highest incidences of asthma and cancer in the city.

The retrofit would still emit more nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter than the city’s peaker plants but the Mayor’s Office is banking on it operating less, thus emitting less overall. The numbers crunched for the study by CH2M Hill presume Mirant operating about 156 hours a year, though it is permitted for 877 hours. The city has sued the company in the past for exceeding its permitted hours.

When questioned if the 97 percent emissions reduction proposed was possible, Henderson said, “The only thing that leads us to believe that is we had vendors who would say they could meet that under contract.”

Maxwell invited three potential vendors to the hearing. All said the industry standard was 90 percent emissions reduction and that it was infeasible, if not technically impossible, to reach 97 percent. To try may even result in a net gain of particulate matter emissions because the plant would need more ammonia catalyst.

But the Mayor’s Office remained confident in the project. “The experts that presented before the committee were all experts attached to the CT project, so I would not consider them independent third-party experts,” Newsom’s director of government affairs Nancy Kirshner-Rodriguez told the Guardian.

Bruce Schaller, vice president of Kansas-based power company Sega, said he wouldn’t bid on this job under the current parameters because, “We would be associated with a project that was a failure.”

Tom Flagg, president of Equipment Source Company, said the project was “completely illogical and impossible to do.” He pointed out that emissions vary widely. “You have surges in emissions levels. Sometimes it’s 94 percent, sometimes it’s 84 percent … A 97 to 98 percent reduction is impossible because in order to maintain that they have 100 percent reduction at times. It’s an average.”

The need for new power generation in San Francisco has been pushed by the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), but environmental groups have urged the city to challenge that mandate. Former California Public Utilities Commission president Loretta Lynch, who spoke against the retrofit plan at the hearing, told the Guardian afterward, “The ISO are ideologues, not engineers. They have no basis in fact that we need any peninsula power production.”

Supervisors passed a resolution asking the SFPUC to develop a transmission-only plan to meet Cal-ISO’s reliability demands. The SFPUC said it will present something within the next couple of months.

Originally published November 5, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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