When Will We Go Green? 

Some Bay Area communities are forming public-power networks to buy and build renewable energy, but East Bay cities have been slow to join the green revolution. Is that about to change?

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"Under the looming threat of Prop 16, an initiative that would put the kibosh on CCA, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission hustled to get a program — any program — launched," Weinrub said. "They issued some requests for proposals to possible energy providers, and in the course of two years since then, they have negotiated a contract with Shell Energy for a 30-megawatt purchase of renewable power on the open market. ... This is not the kind of deal CCA advocates were in favor of."

CleanPowerSF is therefore set to launch under a model much like Marin Energy Authority, purchasing dubious "green" power on the market through its prime contractor, which is better known for its oil business. At the same time, PG&E is pursuing more subtle tactics to wreck CleanPowerSF, such as rolling out its own boutique 100-percent green energy option, a move widely seen as an attempt to chip away at the ratepayer base of potential CCAs. Real change is hard to make, even when all the tools are available.

Advocates of truly green and locally generated electricity haven't given up, however, and the tide appears to be turning their way. After a protracted battle to pressure San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission, activists managed to get the city to commit to some localization from the start, along with the external power purchases. "The good news is San Francisco is going ahead with localization," said Charles Shultz, of Local Power, Inc.

CleanPowerSF is developing a financial model to pay for publicly owned solar and other renewable projects. When combined with efforts to conserve energy and reduce demand so as to lower customers' bills, Shultz said that CleanPowerSF could beat PG&E's rates. Shultz and his colleague Fenn have a mantra: "Own, don't rent, your power; and build, don't buy, your power." In this spirit San Francisco's CCA is empowered with the ability to build renewables through city-issued bonds.

Up in Sonoma County, a similar tack is being taken. County supervisors have embraced the concept of Sonoma Clean Energy, a CCA that would encompass the whole county, which has an electrical load twice as big as Marin's. Activists there are currently working closely with officials to figure out how to maximize the production of local renewables by providing incentives for private developers, and also by reinvesting ratepayer funds in publicly owned projects. The county's RESCO project (Renewable Energy for Secure Communities) is one of the most sophisticated efforts anywhere to study ways of transforming the region's grid by reducing demand, improving conservation and efficiency, and promoting the dispersion of energy generation among distributed, small power sources. It may sound like a wonky study in energy, but it's actually a map for a giant green jobs program.

Sonoma County's effort might also be a model with respect to the kinds of jobs it creates. "If you train someone for a $10-an-hour job to become a 'solar installer,' that's not okay," said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council. "It's not a real job. You're displacing a skilled electrician." Maldonado recalls that the launch of the Marin Energy Authority was harmed by a lack of outreach to labor, partly because some environmental activists there associated the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers with PG&E, and assumed most unions would automatically oppose CCA.

Maldonado says things have changed a lot since then. In Sonoma County, the nonprofit advocates most responsible for advancing Sonoma Clean Power approached labor unions very early on to ensure that efforts to create local green jobs would be clearly grounded in the notion of high-paying, benefits-yielding careers. Those involved in building Sonoma Clean Power say that incorporating labor is key if a CCA is to have a positive impact on the local economy. The launch of Sonoma Clean Power is expected within a year.


As for Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, they have been paralyzed, unable to take advantage of the laws and regulations that currently allow for bold economic initiatives like those being pursued in San Francisco, Sonoma, and Marin with Richmond. According to some, this might all soon change though.

Berkeley took an important, if small, step in January by formally declaring its intention to create or join a CCA, and requesting the necessary electrical load data from PG&E to study the viability of various CCA business plans. "This is one of the possible tools to actually make progress on greenhouse-gas reduction, so I am glad that the council voted to move forward with this," said Councilman Kriss Worthington, who introduced the resolution.

The city resolution is also written to "demonstrate support of clean, local energy," leaving little ambiguity about Berkeley's goals of spurring its local economy. Based on this resolution, Berkeley staff held talks with Richmond in hopes of establishing a joint effort. Although that might now be called off, Berkeley has also been talking with another entity whose entrance into the world of CCA could be a game-changer for the East Bay.

Back in the early 2000s, during the rolling blackouts and spiking electricity rates that were causing havoc in California, the East Bay Municipal Utility District's staff began to investigate means by which they could, as a pre-existing public water and sewage utility, enter the electricity market, thereby stabilizing things under local public control. East Bay MUD hired a consultant and put several staff members to work exploring options. One idea was to form a vertically integrated electrical utility — old-fashioned municipalization. This option was ruled out because of prohibitive costs and risks. Another option involved building renewables on East Bay MUD property so as to reduce the utility's own electrical consumption and dependence on markets distorted by speculators and the volatility of fossil fuel prices. It went with this option, and in ten years East Bay MUD has added several biogas and solar installations. But these efforts are small in the grand scheme of things.

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