CleanPowerSF will still rely on fossil fuels despite claims

City officials boast that the proposed CleanPowerSF public power program will offer consumers 100 percent renewable energy, but for some that sounds a lot better than what is really behind the green label.

While the program is billed as a “100 percent renewable energy alternative” to PG&E, San Franciscans will still be relying to some extent on fossil fuels to power their homes. Since renewable energy, like wind and solar, is intermittent, fossil fuel resources are used to plug in the gaps to ensure there is a steady flow of energy to meet the demand — a process called “firmed and shaped.”

Charles Sheehan, a spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which oversees CleanPowerSF, said that the agency’s program will be 100 percent renewable as defined by state law, while PG&E’s is 16 percent. “Our program will be one of the cleanest energy programs in the entire country,” he said.  

CleanPowerSF’s 100 percent renewable energy portfolio will be achieved with 85 percent “firmed and shaped” sources, 5 percent from the purchase of green credits, and 10 percent from bundled renewable resources, like solar. The SFPUC is negotiating a contract with Shell Energy North America to purchase energy for CleanPowerSF, a community choice aggregation (CCA) program permitted under state law. The Board of Supervisors could vote on the contract as early as January.

The method by which the agency is achieving the 100 percent green label is drawing criticism. Eric Brooks, an environmentalist and longtime public-power advocate, said the program is “destined for failure,” unless the SFPUC can create more local renewable energy projects.

“The only way to bring real renewable energy to San Francisco and to truly reduce pollution is to build and install hundreds of megawatts of local, renewable electricity generation and efficiency installations,” Brooks said. “That way we know we are producing new clean energy and reducing dirty electricity use for all customers on the grid.” 

He added that under CleanPowerSF’s power-purchasing scheme, “We would simply be shifting ‘clean’ electron ‘credits’ from current customers somewhere else, to ourselves. This reality … makes clear that other customers near fossil fuel plants will still have to endure roughly the same amount of pollution, while elite, high-paying customers in San Francisco technically label themselves ‘green.’”

Barbara Hale, assistant general manger of power for the SFPUC, said that the agency is committed to building renewable energy projects, but must first establish the program and a revenue stream. “People want to see the assets built in their community,” Hale said. “We don’t have the financial track record to build anything in the CCA program until after we’ve operated it for a while. So there will be a time lag, but that’s absolutely where we want to be.”

CleanPowerSF was initially intended to offer cleaner energy than PG&E with “meet or beat” rates, but ultimately the agency determined it would have to charge more in order to make the program financially feasible. CleanPowerSF customers will pay from $7 more per month up to $64 more per month than PG&E customers.

The plan is to launch CleanPowerSF in July by automatically enrolling 230,000 residential accounts into the program and sending them notices that they can opt out and remain PG&E customers. It’s estimated 75,000 customers will not opt out.

Green initiative

$19.5M Total startup costs to launch
$15M Put in escrow account for a payout to Shell if the program is terminated
$4M Will sit in a reserve account to “mitigate potential program risks”
230K Number of residents to be enrolled in program
75K Number of residents expected to stay in program

Source: San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

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