SF may speed up effort to take all of PG&E’s power customers

San Francisco has enrolled tens of thousands of power customers in a renewable energy program since May in competition with PG&E, but the big question now is how fast The City will enroll the remaining hundreds of thousands of such customers.

CleanPowerSF’s history dates back more than a decade, as the community choice aggregation program was caught up in bitter politics and faced fierce opposition from PG&E. At times it seemed as if it would never launch.

But in May, service was rolled out to 7,400 commercial customers in neighborhoods like the Bayview, Haight and Castro. This month that number has grown to a total of 78,000 accounts after the program enrolled residents in District 5 and District 8, which includes neighborhoods like Noe Valley and the Fillmore.

Now The City is studying how to take a 60 megawatt program serving some 78,000 customers and generating revenues in excess of $35 million to serve some 300,000 power accounts in San Francisco with a more than 413 megawatt system with $290 million in revenues from rate payers.

In December 2015, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which runs CleanPowerSF, had an initial plan to enroll all power customers by 2021.

But supporters of the program were critical of that timeline and agency officials acknowledged the renewable energy market has become more favorable for community choice aggregation. And there is no escaping the fact that other such programs have more aggressive roll outs.

Peninsula Clean Energy, for example, which serves San Mateo, launched in October and will offer service to all customers there by the end of next year.

The next enrollment for CleanPowerSF is planned to occur in the spring. How large that enrollment is will be determined by the so-called “growth plan” due out around the same time.

Customers are automatically enrolled in CleanPowerSF and have chances to opt out and continue receiving less clean power from PG&E. The opt-out rate hovers around 2 percent.

The growth plan analysis will determine how much faster the agency will enroll San Francisco’s power customers. City officials are not providing any estimates of a possible speed up until the analysis is done.

“We are hoping sooner. I don’t want to guess,” Barbara Hale, assistant general manager of the SFPUC’s power enterprise, told the San Francisco Examiner last week. Hale added, “We want do this in a financially responsible way. We don’t want to establish this program and then not have the financial legs to be a stable program.”

Francesca Vietor, a SFPUC commissioner, said during a discussion of CleanPowerSF last week that she wanted to make sure to not only speed up enrollment but also to “accelerate the greenness of the product while maintaining financial viability.”

The current energy mix of CleanPowerSF is 40 percent greenhouse gas free energy — mostly bought from wind farms — as well as 36 percent from Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric power, and 24 percent from natural gas bought from Calpine. The program also offers a 100 percent renewable energy service for an extra fee. Some 1,155 have signed up for this “SuperGreen” service, according to Hale.

Mike Hyams, CleanPowerSF director, said power mix is part of the growth study and noted that San Francisco has goal “to transition the electric supply in San Francisco to 100 percent greenhouse gas free by 2030, and CleanpowerSF is really the means by which The City can take action on that goal.”

There is another aspect of the program’s growth supporters are concerned about, which is when the agency will start funding the construction of local renewable energy projects, for both the benefit of jobs and a boost in renewable energy supply.

Hale told the Examiner that the growth plan would analyze such a build-out, although it was unclear what scope that would take.

During last week’s commission hearing, Vietor encouraged the growth plan to identify local build out projects. “We want to keep our eyes on this local build question,” Vietor said. “Even just having when some site assessment could happen to talk about what might be some low hanging fruit to start local build out.”

But SFPUC director Harlan Kelly cautioned against eyeing a build out at this point, noting that the power rates have to remain competitive with PG&E.

“We want to do local build, which is more expensive,” Kelly said. “We are still in a juggling act. We are trying to do it responsibly. We are cautiously moving forward. That’s why I don’t want to start building stuff because then we are going to be more expensive than PG&E.”

Vietor was more optimistic of the costs, noting the renewable energy industry is “such a shifting landscape.”

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