Protect the needy while supporting CleanPowerSF

San Francisco has taken an important step toward building a sustainable future with its approval of CleanPowerSF. All that truly stands in the way now is making sure the rollout will allow people who do not want to participate to opt out.

The new power program is the second of its kind in the state, a “community choice aggregation” program that allows a municipality to buy and sell power. The goal of CleanPowerSF is to sell 100 percent renewable energy to existing PG&E customers who live in The City.

The biggest fight over approval of the program involved how those 90,000 PG&E customers will be enrolled.

Under the 2002 state law that established the framework for such programs, users must be automatically enrolled and then asked if they would like to opt out. Three supervisors argued convincingly that it would have been better if the program had allowed ratepayers to opt in to the service rather than having to opt out. Mayor Ed Lee’s spokesman said the mayor also had issues about this provision.

Lee could symbolically veto the legislation, but it was passed by the Board of Supervisors with enough votes to override any mayoral veto. So it would be better for San Franciscans if city officials now stopped talking about what-ifs and focused instead on making sure the program is implemented in a fashion that is fair and equitable for all the people who are about to find themselves enrolled.

City officials need to roll out a truly effective outreach campaign, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and those with a large percentage of residents for whom English is not their native language. The final rates are not yet set, but it is estimated the average power bill for ratepayers who remain enrolled in CleanPowerSF will increase an average of between $9 and $18 a month. In solidly middle-class or higher-income neighborhoods, such an increase may barely be noticeable, but for San Franciscans who are barely scrapping by, such an increase could create an economic hardship.

In spite of this real concern, the program’s advantages far outweigh its negatives. The City will enter into a five-year agreement with Shell in order to sell the energy, and the plan is for San Francisco to use the program’s revenue stream to then further bolster construction of new renewable energy sources. In particular, the program is expected to fund new solar initiatives. Further down the line, the funds could also be used to build other solar and wind projects in The City that lessen our carbon emissions.

There is no such thing as a perfect system, and the program’s local implementation will likely have a few hiccups. Yet Marin County instituted the state’s first system, and the lights there have continued to shine without any big complications.

San Francisco has to pony up an initial $13.5 million for the program, but that money will be refundable if the program succeeds. In addition to the program’s obvious environmental benefits for The City, the money that could be lost in the event of failure is another reason that city officials should now line up and help this program succeed.

Hindsight is 20/20, but now that the board has spoken, it is clear what lies ahead. And bickering over a 2002 state law does nothing to benefit The City.

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