CleanPowerSF: Sorry, Details Matter

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It's great to be granted tacit permission by our colleagues down the hall at the Guardian to cover matters relating to CleanPowerSF.

It's not so great, however, to read an article about the city's clean energy program essentially urging readers and reporters alike to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain -- to avoid quibbling over "details" because CleanPowerSF is The Way.

City residents must overlook even glaring shortcomings, as the program cannot advance toward the pot of local energy at the end of the rainbow -- the dreamed-of "local buildout" -- if we don't do our part. Our part would be not asking questions, paying the high rates for CleanPowerSF, and trusting that the revenue bonds issued against our premium rates will be used to transform San Francisco into an ecotopia.

Ronald Reagan didn't say too many brilliant things, but he was definitely on to something when he uttered "trust but verify." As SF Weekly recently verified in a cover story, CleanPowerSF has lofty "goals" to achieve laudable ends -- but no plan.

That is still the case.

"Trust but verify..."
For those without a dog in this decades-long brawl, the Guardian article neatly illustrates so much of what has doomed honest policy discussions about CleanPowerSF. The project is so saturated with political residue that the powers-that-be really don't have to worry about those so-called "details."

Any politician deigning to call herself a "progressive" in this town -- and hoping for support from a paper that has elevated public power to a raison d'être and a cure-all -- is going to support CleanPowerSF, regardless of the fine print. And virtually any politician enthralled to the PG&E-dominated Chamber of Commerce is just as automatically opposed.

A deal in which the public receives less and less while the price becomes more and more would be the sort of thing our colleagues would oppose -- if it was the Central Subway. The notion of inherently trusting city government that things will work out -- and that residents must get with the program or doom it -- wouldn't be deemed a valid argument in support of the subway line. But this is different. When programs are elevated to dogma, logic suffers.

There are other, more "detailed" problems with the Guardian's take. They argue that "meeting our greenhouse gas reduction goals requires people to just sign up for CleanPowerSF..." Let's leave aside the notion of "signing up for" a program in which residents are auto-enrolled. As we detailed in our cover story, the intricacies of the origin of the Shell-provided energy CleanPowerSF will deliver and California's complicated carbon cap make simple discussions about greenhouse gas reduction treacherous.

In order to keep CleanPowerSF's price relatively low, it will rely heavily on "renewable energy credits":

Renewable energy credits are the energy world's equivalent to a papal indulgence. Essentially, purchasing one allows an energy provider to claim credit for power generated by an existing renewable facility -- power that would have been generated regardless and is distributed to someone else -- while providing its customers with system power. Locals paying a premium for "100-per cent renewable" energy may actually be receiving whatever's in the grid -- while propping up existing wind-farms in Idaho or landfills in Washington. Unions say they hate this because it sends money and jobs out of state. Environmentalists hate it because it doesn't add to the development of new renewable power.

Of course, when the energy you're getting is only green by dint of a piece of paper saying it's green, the greenhouse gas situation is far from settled. What's more, due to the state's somewhat maddening carbon cap, it's entirely possible that successful efforts by San Francisco to reduce its emissions -- undertaken at great cost to ratepayers -- could simply be balanced by a more polluting region buying up carbon allowances on the cheap and spewing out more.

Even the most ardent supporters of CleanPowerSF would begrudgingly accept a short-term influx of faux-green renewable energy credits -- if it was balanced by a solid, mapped-out plan for a significant local buildout. No such plan exists. The extremely tentative suggestion of erecting seven large solar farms -- tacked to the bottom of an undelivered January Public Utilities Commission presentation -- would require years of struggle, hundreds of millions of dollars, and a long-term, continued reliance upon PG&E to transport power between the installations and the city. These installations, by the way, would provide about 14 percent of the city's current residential power needs.

Finally -- and least surprisingly -- the Guardian gives short shrift to the competing green energy plan being developed by PG&E because, of course, PG&E is evil incarnate. But, as the Guardian has earlier noted, the energy industry isn't stocked with benevolent and altruistic souls (Shell is no Albert Schweitzer). Even very highly placed sources within the PUC have told us the argument that PG&E's plan is greener than the city's own is a strong one.

As it stands, CleanPowerSF customers would be asked to pay a good chunk of money for papal indulgence energy credits provided by Shell in hopes of an elusive local buildout. PG&E, meanwhile, is offering -- at a lesser or equal cost -- energy generated by in-state solar facilities, with customers' premiums funding the creation of new renewable installations.

Should PG&E be taken at its word? Of course not. But, then, neither should the PUC -- trust but verify, after all. The only way to ensure that things work out as well as they can is to pay more attention to details, not less. You could argue that, for a news reporter, this is something of a job requirement.

Details matter. And without them, you can never have a plan. Only goals.

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njudah topcommenter

PG&E can seriously go to Hell after that pipeline explosion (which nearly killed a few friends of mine) and I don't mind saying so. But having to choose between fascists PG&E and fascist Shell? Barf. Surely we don't have to do a deal with a devil simply because he's not THAT devil.

rmajora topcommenter

I agree. But it has to be pointed out that these same people didn't oppose the Central Subway when it was on the ballot years ago as part of Prop. K. Aaron Peskin now admits that he was snookered into supporting the project when he was a supervisor. The high-speed rail project is another example of a project that sounds good in the abstract, but when you look at the details it's an awful project. The idea that bicycles can/will ever play a significant role in the city's transportation system is another idea that sounds good in the abstract, but when you look at the actual projects proposed---Polk Street, Masonic Avenue, among others---the "details" don't look so good.

The Bay Guardian has been pushing public power forever, and this clean power idea is nothing but a way to slip it in the back door even though city voters have rejected public power more than a dozen times when it's been on the ballot.

Surely the people of SF are sophisticated enough to not be snookered by this project just because it has a "green" label.

mrericsir topcommenter

@rmajora You really need to pull your head out of your ass.


@mrericsir - It must be really dark in there.

rmajora topcommenter


So dark that no one knows who you and the cat person are. Why not at least try to deal with the argument instead of insulting me under the cover of anonymity?

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