A significant step toward having the nation’s first renewable-powered city was taken yesterday by the city and county of San Francisco. Its board of supervisors went forward with a request for the public utility commission to study a plan’s feasibility that would develop more than half the city's total electric power from renewables.
“It’s high time for San Francisco to chart its own energy future,” Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the board.
The city’s power currently comes investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which also owns the transmission lines along with the power-generating facilities. About 12 percent of the city’s PG&E power now comes from renewable sources, with the remainder coming from large-scale hydroelectric dams, natural gas-fired power plants and nuclear facilities.
California requires 20 percent of all its power to come from renewable sources by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020, but San Francisco is attempting to shoot for the moon with its new approach.
The plan, called “community choice aggregation,” would have San Francisco developing and owning its own power-generating facilities, which it proposes consist of 51 percent renewables such as solar, wind, biomass and small-scale hydroelectric by 2017.
San Franciscan residents or businesses then would be able to “opt-out” of the program if they chose to continue to receive power generated by PG&E, otherwise they would automatically receive the new greener energy from the PG&E lines and would be billed by PG&E, just as always.
Community choice was legislated as an option by the state’s General Assembly (AB 117) in 2002 after rolling power blackouts of 2000-2001 and skyrocketing energy prices--now proven to be influenced by Enron and other out-of-state power companies--spooked the state into action for more energy independence. San Francisco voters also approved a $100 million solar bond in 2001 to back development of renewables, though most of that funding has remained untapped.
Aggregating purchases of energy by a city differs from publicly owned utilities that can be found in cities such as Austin, Texas’ Austin Energy. Fresno and a consortium of other adjacent California Central Valley cities are the furthest along in developing consumer choice aggregation.
PG&E, in apparent opposition to the community choice campaign, has been running an aggressive marketing campaign in San Francisco across buses, billboards and media called “Let’s Green This City,” touting the city’s green potential.
One board supervisor, Michela Alioto, cautioned the board that the city would have a big challenge in developing energy generation sources separate from PG&E—renewable or otherwise—on such a massive scale: “I have not had one conversation with anyone from PG&E...(but) I want you to tell me how this will provide better service at a better price.”
Currently San Francisco is the national leader in city-generated solar power, with about 1 megawatt of solar capacity out of the city’s current 900 daily megawatts of total consumption. The new plan scopes out the need for 360 megawatts of renewable energy to replace a big chunk of the non-renewable portion of PG&E's supply.