S.F. supes tilting at windmill again

Ignoring the warnings of economists and the city controller, plus the overwhelming objections of 74 percent of local business executives polled by the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee tiptoed one step closer Wednesday toward putting The City into the renewable electricity business.

The committee voted unanimously to have the Public Utilities Commission analyze how much it would cost ratepayers to bring greener and presumably cheaper city power to residents with a “community choice aggregation” energy provider.

If such a proposal ultimately becomes reality, San Francisco would commit to building enough solar panels, wind turbines and fuel cells to provide at least one-third of the 900 megawatts of energy use daily in The City. Residential and business customers could choose to either join the new city-run system or stay with private supplier Pacific Gas and Electric Co. California law would require PG&E to transmit city-generated power over the utility’s own lines and to handle billing for community choice customers.

There is no denying that the dream of clean, cheap, plentiful, green energy sounds lovely indeed. But when all potential expenses are accurately totaled, the results are likely to be nightmarish. City Controller Ed Harrington is already saying the public alternative would actually cost 24 percent more than PG&E power.

Successful community choice aggregation would require voluntary participation from numerous large-scale business customers. But in a new San Francisco Chamber of Commerce business survey by an independent pollster, some three-fourths of the responding executives believed PG&E would do a better job providing their electricity than The City and they were uninterested in making changes.

The Bay Area Economic Forum also weighed in with a new report cautioning about the difficulties of finding local sites where the neighbors would willingly accept even the greenest new energy generation facilities.

This latest public power proposal harkens back to the heated 2001 campaign to make San Francisco and adjacent Brisbane the two cities necessary for establishing a municipal utility district to replace PG&E. The measure lost narrowly in The City and was clobbered 4-1 in Brisbane.

The defeated plan was studded with flaky elements, such as replacing experienced energy professionals with citizen panels having no knowledge of administering public utilities. Of course it is possible to have a successful public power company. The Sacramento and Los Angeles MUDs were beacons of affordable rates during California’s botched deregulation scheme of 2000.

But perhaps the strongest argument against trying an alternative energy provider again in San Francisco is the sad example of city-operated Hetch Hetchy water system, where for decades successive municipal administrations balanced budgets by deferring much-needed maintenance. So now the public faces a multibillion-dollar replacement project.

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