The mayor who cried PG&E: Lee’s new bid

Ed Lee is the mayor who cried PG&E, but now he has less reason to defend the local dirty power purveyors.

As our climate worsens and the call to curb global warming clamors worldwide, cities are increasingly seen as the impetus for change. The Board of Supervisors long ago drafted legislation to enter the city into a community-choice aggregation program, potentially freeing The City from the leash of PG&E's monopolistic, mostly polluting power supply.

The program, which became CleanPowerSF, would allow much of the city to divest from coal and nuclear sources, and be powered by mostly wind, solar, and hydro.

Alas, it was not to be. At least, not yet.

Every step of the way, Mayor Lee slapped down efforts to help The City truly go green. If PG&E is the fantastical damsel in distress, Lee is the knight on horseback, his armor tarnished with coal burns and sludge.

This policy agreement stems back all the way to the days of PG&E's original best friend, former Mayor Willie Brown.

“None of the mayors really loved CleanPowerSF,” Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who first authored the community-choice aggregation program, told me.

“PG&E has a lot of sway,” Ammiano said.

The Mayor's Office told us Lee wants a “real” green program, by which he means his small-fries program GoSolarSF, which has the capacity to serve much less of San Francisco.

Lee's publicly stated problems with CleanPowerSF are now slowly falling by the wayside. The first major blow to the mayor's arguments came as CleanPowerSF dropped Shell Energy North America as a provider of clean energy. Shell was an easy scapegoat, and was rightfully dropped.

Another of the mayor's arguments was stomped down last month.

The mayor has long crowed “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” as his reasoning to hold onto PG&E, saying CleanPowerSF would deprive San Franciscans of much needed high-paying jobs. It would be a compelling argument, if it were true.

A new report from Enernex, commissioned by The City's Local Agency Formation Commission, shows the project would generate 8,100 jobs in The City.

Now that the report confirms what CleanPowerSF advocates have said all along — that it would create jobs — Lee says it's a revelation.

“[Job creation] is something we can all agree on,” his spokeswoman Christine Falvey said. Before now, she said, the employment evidence “was nowhere to be found.”

The jobs are mostly in the construction of geothermal, wind and solar projects, and are temporary. CleanPowerSF would create 180 full-time operational jobs in the city.

The other roadblock to CleanPowerSF lay in the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, members of which are all appointed by the mayor. When a commission is fully mayor-appointed, it often carries out the wishes of the mayors who appointed them.

“A rubber stamp comes to mind,” Ammiano said of the SFPUC.

That's how San Francisco mayors have held CleanPowerSF back for so long. But now, mayoral appointee Art Torres has retired from the board.

He's long blocked CleanPowerSF, which the now-gone San Francisco Bay Guardian long attributed to political favors from City Hall.

Now, the commission opening may clear the way for CleanPowerSF.

City Hall insiders hinted that the Board of Supervisors, which must approve mayoral appointees, will block any appointee who doesn't back the clean-energy program. The vote to confirm a new SFPUC commissioner will no doubt generate a backdoor political scramble by the mayor though, and nothing is ever certain in City Hall.

In the meantime, Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced legislation into committee Monday to grant the SFPUC the right to first refusal to provide hydroelectric (greenhouse-gas-free) power to new private developments.

The hydropower comes from The City's dam at Hetch Hetchy, and demonstrates something clean-energy advocates have known for a long time: The City can generate its own clean power, if we only let it.

Or, if Mayor Ed Lee lets it.

“The report shows major benefits — clean power, reducing green house gas emissions, thousands of jobs, and minimal cost to the PUC and its power program,” Supervisor John Avalos said of CleanPowerSF, which he has long championed. “This is too good to pass up. “

Every San Franciscan should be asking the mayor: What are you waiting for? An oil-sludge signed invitation?

On Guard covers issues concerning San Francisco's political left. It prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at

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