San Francisco’s newest try at renewable energy isn’t actually green, but an almost-green, off mustard-yellow masquerading as the real deal.
That’s the argument made by a PG&E employee union, IBEW Local 1245, in its “Truth in Energy” ballot measure against CleanPowerSF. It argues that while CleanPowerSF advocates for a greener future, it’s doing so with “renewable energy certificates,” what the union calls government trickery that disguises dirty power sources.
The measure would not allow CleanPowerSF to refer to energy paired with renewable energy certificates as green energy.
The campaign is hogwash, as most arguments by PG&E and its allies are. But untangling exactly why is a big ol’ mess, mired in electric industry technicalities.
First things first: The City uses dirty power, as we fume 149 tons of carbon each day from energy use, according to city reports.
So when the decadelong embattled program CleanPowerSF finally comes online next year, its promise of clean energy is one San Franciscans can look to as a way to seriously put a dent in our carbon emissions.
This is why IBEW’s argument has some resonance. Marin briefly played out the IBEW scenario, greenwashing some dirty power as they built out their own clean power infrastructure. But Marin used it like training wheels to get them steady. Years later, it has built the renewable infrastructure it promised.
Jason Fried, senior program officer at The City’s Local Agency Formation Commission, explained how CleanPowerSF hopes to get to a similar clean energy future.
A renewable energy certificate is how the state certifies renewable energy has been produced, he said. One possible use of RECs follows: When CleanPowerSF launches next year, let’s say, for example, it purchases renewable energy from local wind turbine operators.
The turbine’s energy is renewable, and legally the operators can sell its “renewable energy certificate” separately from that energy.
If the REC has already been sold, any energy CleanPowerSF purchases from the turbine wouldn’t be considered green.
“As soon as you sell that energy credit, it’s considered dirty energy,” Fried said. So CleanPowerSF would purchase a renewable energy credit from a different source, maybe even another turbine, to meet its green energy requirements.
It’s a lot of complicated energy-wonk stuff, but under the “Truth in Energy” ballot measure, CleanPowerSF wouldn’t be able to claim the wind turbine energy was green — just because the certificate was bought from a different source of green energy.
This scenario is common, but is a process IBEW says San Francisco can use to hide use of dirty power. But The City may never need to lean on dirty power like Marin did, at least not initially, for one simple reason.
“The City should have enough Hetch Hetchy [Dam] power that that’s not an issue,” Fried said.
Essentially, our hydropower is enough to serve as our “training wheels.”
So why is IBEW slinging mud? In a YouTube video produced by IBEW meant to explain political battles to its members, IBEW 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell was frank about the union’s motives to fight CleanPowerSF.
“A new cast of characters is hard at work dismantling electric generation and distribution,” the video’s narrator says, as it plays the sort of ominous background music reserved for documentaries about rapists.
Programs like CleanPowerSF, Dalzell said, are “Threats to our existence.”
So the Truth in Energy campaign is really about protecting union jobs. Still, this is something we can be sympathetic about. Middle-class jobs are an endangered species.
Below is the video by IBEW.
But CleanPowerSF will actually create many new jobs, according to recent reports. That’s what finally made Joshua Arce, community liaison to Laborers Local 261, support the program.
“I don’t see anything at this point that shows a job loss for IBEW members,” he told me. So far, it’s “a plan that people who believe in good paying union jobs would like to see.”
A recent report showed CleanPowerSF would generate 9,232 construction jobs with local renewable-energy projects and 196 permanent operational jobs.
The facts don’t seem to stir IBEW supporters.
Conor Johnston, an aide to Supervisor London Breed said, “These are the same kind of shenanigans we’ve seen from PG&E for the past decade.”
That’s why Breed sponsored a rival measure, which will hold CleanPowerSF to the same standards of language as every other utility —unlike the Truth in Energy campaign.
But here’s the real truth: CleanPowerSF is San Francisco’s best path to a clean energy future. Anything less than that is just blowing smoke.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.