On Guard: The City’s climate change Cold War

Right now, PG&E is shaking in its electrified boots.

San Francisco is waking up to its part in battling climate change. The City is dirty, and a quarter of our greenhouse-gas emissions are reportedly created by our electricity.

We fume 149 tons of carbon each day from energy use, according to city reports.

Our future electricity sources are mandated to soon be green. But now The City and PG&E are locked in a green-power arms race.

Newly announced support from Mayor Ed Lee has The City kicking its potentially 100 percent renewable-energy power program, CleanPowerSF, into high gear.

CleanPowerSF is a proposed city-run power program that would provide solar, wind, small hydro and other renewable energy to San Francisco. Even supporters admit it wouldn't be 100 percent green at launch, but has the potential to hit that goal. The City already provides electricity to its own agencies, via the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir's hydropower.

The mayor called for a plan for CleanPowerSF to be created by December (notably, after public scrutiny during the elections is over). But Supervisor London Breed wants CleanPowerSF to launch even earlier, and Power Enterprise — which provides electricity to The City's government agencies — is already working on ways to shave months off of a launch plan.

But why the breakneck speed? Threats to CleanPowerSF lurk in the shadows.

Out of the spotlight, PG&E is laying out a competing program aimed straight at the heart of CleanPowerSF, which could threaten PG&E's local power monopoly.

The chess game between the energy giant and clean-power advocates started long ago, but now we're nearing checkmate.

In April 2012, the energy company filed with the California Public Utilities Commission to establish a green tariff option, using 100 percent solar energy. Put plainly, it's competition for CleanPowerSF.

But PG&E could subsidize a green tariff in crafty ways.

In a memo from Power Enterprise Assistant General Manager Barbara Hale to the SFPUC, she alleged “inappropriate use of resources procured by PG&E” to pay for the green tariff, and “aspects of the program rate design that would unlawfully shift costs from Green Tariff participants to non-participating ratepayers.”

To translate the bureaucrat-ese, essentially PG&E can burn coal all year round, and potentially use that power to subsidize its green-energy program to put CleanPowerSF out of business.

And without that competition, insiders fear, PG&E can go back to business as usual.

“They have a long history of taking care of their shareholders,” said Jason Fried, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission who is championing CleanPowerSF.

The green-tariff option is expected to launch this summer. Right now, the SFPUC is weighing whether or not to set CleanPowerSF's rates before or after the green tariff launches.

It's a tough political choice, and could spur CleanPowerSF's launch, or leave it idling at the gate. At the same time, other political opposition to CleanPowerSF may be building.

“The mayor was very clear about his support for a new version of CleanPowerSF,” mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey in an email to The San Francisco Examiner.

But the mayor's proposed appointment to the SFPUC, Ike Kwon, could possibly side with the green tariff option over CleanPowerSF. He is the general manager of the California Academy of Sciences, which also received a more than $1.5 million donation from PG&E for its ongoing Climate Education Campaign. PG&E Vice President of Election Operations Geisha Williams serves on the Cal Academy's board of trustees.

It's hard to say if the political connections will sway Kwon. But the Board of Supervisors has precedent for rejecting SFPUC appointments with even loose connections to PG&E.

The pawns are off the board. The queens and rooks are closing in, and PG&E is nearing its chance at checkmate.

Which green-energy plan wins out may determine San Francisco's reduction in climate change — which may be none at all.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

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