San Francisco is powering up. New homes, offices, electric vehicle charging stations, and building upgrades all require more electricity. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is ready to provide new projects with more clean, renewable energy. But Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which still owns most of San Francisco’s energy distribution network, is slowing progress.
Information provided by the SFPUC shows that the private utility has delayed energy upgrades on almost 40 projects around The City, including denying a request to accommodate safety and efficiency improvements at Tule Elk Park Early Education School in the Marina.
“The San Francisco Unified School District is converting Tule Elk to an electric heating system that is significantly more energy efficient than its prior gas-fired one,” SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnik told me. “This is part of our larger effort to phase out fossil fuels and eliminate our carbon footprint by 2040.”
Unfortunately, SFUSD’s goal may be difficult to achieve while PG&E still owns the distribution network. The company appears to be using its assets to make The City jump through unnecessary and expensive hoops.
The proposed improvements at Tule Elk, for example, will only increase the school’s energy demand to 300kW. But PG&E is requiring The City to install a completely new system typically used for large electrical loads such as General Hospital or San Francisco Muni substations . Not only is a system this large likely unnecessary, but there’s also no room to install it on the campus.
I reached out to PG&E for clarification, and was told by Andrea Menniti that, “PG&E and the city and county of San Francisco share the same goal of safely serving the citizens of San Francisco clean, affordable and reliable energy. However, we disagree with the City’s desire to serve customers without owning the appropriate electric utility infrastructure.”
It’s hard to see why the company would disagree with safety upgrades at an early education school.
There appears to be no reason for PG&E’s delays and denials other than bad faith. The company is slowing development of affordable housing, preventing service to electric vehicle chargers, adding 6.3 million pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and costing San Francisco taxpayers $9.5 million, according to the SFPUC.
The City has responded by seeking redress from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission through its formal complaint process. But PG&E’s bankruptcy offers another solution: purchasing the company’s distribution network. Last May, the SFPUC released a preliminary report that explored acquiring PG&E’s assets in and near San Francisco and operating them as a public, not for profit service.
“Establishing full electricity independence has the potential for significant long-term benefits relative to investment costs and risks,” Will Reisman with the SFPUC told me. “Those benefits include durable and long-term cost savings; time and cost-efficient modernization of the electric grid; increased transparency and more local oversight; and meeting the City’s priorities on affordability, clean energy, safety, reliability workforce development and equity.”
Unfortunately, The City’s full electricity independence hit a snag last month after the California legislature overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive wildfire response package. The bill included an amendment that makes it harder for San Francisco to purchase PG&E’s assets.
“We are continuing to move forward with our study on public power options for San Francisco, and remain committed to finding a solution that provides safe, reliable and clean electricity for the residents and businesses of this City,” Reisman said.
It’s good The City is moving forward. Delaying safety and sustainability upgrades at an early education school is both ridiculous and dangerous. Until San Francisco stops relying on PG&E to distribute the clean, renewable energy it procures, it won’t have the power it needs to meet growing demand, keep rates low and respond to the climate crisis.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com