Backward on climate

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Supporters of CleanPowerSF gathered on the steps of City Hall before an Aug. 13 hearing.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

After a hearing lasting several hours on Tue/13, members of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission voted down a motion to approve electricity rates for CleanPowerSF, a municipal energy program designed to offer a 100 percent green energy mix to San Francisco customers.

The approval of that “not-to-exceed” rate, set at 11.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, would have cleared the path to set CleanPowerSF in motion after almost a decade of politically charged debates and setbacks.

“I feel like today is a historic moment for the SFPUC as well as the city of San Francisco,” commissioner Francesca Vietor said as she introduced her motion to approve the rate. “Even though I understand this is only a vote to approve the not-to-exceed rate,” she added, it was a critical first step toward a long-term vision in which “we will also be able to create a new generation of green collar workers and build our own renewable power system.”

In the end, Vietor and Commissioner Anson Moran were the only ones to favor the rate approval, while Ann Moller Caen, Vince Courtney and President Art Torres shot it down. So once again, CleanPowerSF has been kicked back in limbo.

“This is not just about rates today,” Torres said. “If we approve these rates, that would authorize the General Manager [of the SFPUC] to authorize a contract with Shell.”  

Oil giant Shell Energy North America was tapped by the SFPUC to purchase green energy on the open market during the first phase of the program. Although Shell is a fossil fuel company with a disgraceful human rights track record, progressives and environmentalists stand behind a speedy approval of that contract, because they say it is a crucial first step toward realizing the ultimate project vision of constructing city-owned and operated renewable energy facilities while creating local green jobs.

“The deal is that you cannot do that until you move forward, and launch the program,” said Shawn Marshall, executive director of LEAN – a group that assists with clean-energy municipal power programs – speaking at a rally just before the hearing. “You have to live to go local. We call on the mayor’s office to stop impeding progress with heavy-handed politics and we ask the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to stay focused on its job of implementing a program that was approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last September.”

Rather than focusing on the question of whether or not to approve the rate, Torres and Caen voiced generally negative sentiments about the CleanPowerSF endeavor before casting “no” votes on the rate approval. Caen said she’d “always had problems with the opt-out situation,” referring to a system of automatic enrollment in the program, and Torres criticized the project for having changed shape, saying, “at the end of the day, this is not what San Franciscans had anticipated.”

The bid to establish CleanPowerSF is mired in charged politics. Because the program threatens Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s monopoly in San Francisco, the utility giant is prepared to shell out whatever it takes to stop the forward momentum. PG&E is deeply influential in San Francisco City Hall, having richly rewarded former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, known to be a frequent dining companion of Mayor Ed Lee, for his consulting services, for instance. Lee opposes the program, and the mayor appoints the SFPUC commissioners.

Torres, the commission president, bristled at suggestions from the public that he was merely carrying the mayor’s water, saying, “I do my own homework, and I make up my own mind.”

But Sup. John Avalos has made up his own mind too, and he sent legislative aide Jeremy Pollock to convey the message to the SFPUC that enough is enough. Avalos plans to go to the City Attorney to find out what can be done about the relentless foot-dragging of a commission that just won’t approve a fair rate for a program that was approved by the Board of Supervisors last fall.

During the public comment session of the hearing, Pollock read Avalos’ statement, which characterized the commission’s refusal to approve the rate as a “constitutional crisis” with regard to the body’s responsibilities.

"Any further delay will essentially show that we are in a constitutional crisis caused by a city department failing to carry out a policy approved by a veto-proof supermajority of the Board of Supervisors," Avalos' statement noted. "The Board stands ready to approve these rates, but nothing more can happen until you take action. The City Charter is silent on the possibility of the Public Utilities Commission failing to act on a proposed utility rate. Therefore if there is further delay, I feel I have no choice but to request that the City Attorney explore our options to resolve this type of stalemate—including the possibility of drafting a Charter Amendment. CleanPowerSF is too important and the threat of climate change is too significant to allow this program to die on the vine. It is time for leadership. And this vote will be long remembered for the action you take today."

But instead of just approving that rate – which is lower, by the way, than originally proposed – the commissioners just seized the opportunity to halt the program from moving forward, since CleanPowerSF cannot advance without a contract, and the contract cannot be signed until a rate has been formally approved.

“It seems as if they are essentially refusing to establish a fair rate, so we’re going to ask the city attorney, you know, what’s the recourse if the PUC is failing to carry out their duties?” Pollock noted.

Just before the votes were cast, Vietor, who had urged her colleagues to go forward and approve the rate at the outset of the meeting, was asked to re-state her motion. She returned to the bright and optimistic prepared statement she’d read at the beginning, only this time with a note of frustration because it was clear that the votes weren’t there. “Today is a historic moment for the San Francisco public utility commission,” she read out loud, “to become a leader in combating climate change.”

Note: This post has been updated from an earlier version.