Updated (Sep. 6, 2012): added more-current information to the WhatYouCanDo section.
Fossil-fuel generation of electricity is one of the leading causes of global climate change, but switching a community to renewable energy is tricky.
A state law passed in 2002 (AB 117—Migden) created Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), the means under California law for communities to take control of their energy choices, offering residents an alternative to PG&E and other investor-owned utilities. But once a community does start setting up a Community Choice program, the results aren’t automatic. It takes a lot of tough decisions to determine whether Community Choice will bring local, clean, low-carbon power generation, energy-efficiency projects, and the accompanying skilled local jobs.
Local control does offer opportunities for nurturing local “distributed generation” (DG), such as solar panels and wind machines on buildings, parking lots, and other available urban spaces. Such local generation should be complemented with local energy-efficiency installations such as insulation, multi-paned windows, cogeneration units on gas boilers (using waste heat to produce steam-generated electricity), and smart grids. By building new local generation capacity, Community Choice ensures that it is directly increasing green power and not just competing with other buyers for renewable electricity that would be generated elsewhere anyway.
The city may also seek carbon-free energy from solar farms and wind farms in areas where large tracts of inexpensive land are available. In this case, we want the city to choose carefully. Such power plants can be far from the customers who use the power, requiring long transmission lines, which lose up to 15% of the power to resistive heat. These lines may be built through sensitive wild areas or agricultural lands. Many companies are trying to site facilities in precious desert wildlands or on prime farmlands. Local control gives the opportunity to set high environmental standards for choosing among providers, in particular standards higher than the state’s definition of renewable energy, which for example allows burning of wood chips.
Instituting such standards is a challenge, though. To get started, a Community Choice program may contract to buy electricity from a large-scale provider that can guarantee supply right away. This strategy can gain the community time to develop secure financing for local clean-energy sources. But once a contract is signed with a large provider, how can we make sure that the local community will develop its own clean energy?
San Francisco’s plans
This is a key problem that San Francisco is wrestling with as it sets up its new Community Choice program, CleanPowerSF (see April-May 2012, page 4). The Sierra Club Bay Chapter is working with allies such as the Local Clean Energy Alliance, Brightline Defense, and Our City to help the San Francisco Public Utility Commission, Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO), and Board of Supervisors shape the CleanPowerSF program.
The SFPUC has negotiated a contract with Shell Energy North America to provide energy meeting state standards as renewable. Shell was one of just two energy providers to come even close to meeting the bidding requirements set forward by the SFPUC three years ago. The SFPUC has passed a resolution for adopting the Shell contract, which, due to the work of the Sierra Club and allies, has language committing the city to the concept of local build-out of clean energy and efficiency as “essential to a successful CCA program”.
Next, two committees of the Board of Supervisors will soon be discussing this resolution. The Bay Chapter and its allies have been working hard to broaden the resolution to include local and regional renewable-energy resources and energy-efficiency projects. Once the resolution clears the two committees, then the full Board will decide whether to accept it and get started, or to reject it. At the same time, the city has contracted for Local Power, the Bay Area clean-energy engineering team that created the Community Choice model and specializes in planning for such programs, to study and then design an implementation plan for installing hundreds of megawatts of local and regional distributed generation via CleanPowerSF. Preliminary study results are due by the end of August, with installation plans and construction bids set for release by October.
The city is faced with some delicate decisions in very difficult financial times. If it approves the Shell contract without a plan for local generation, local renewables could end up developing too slowly, but if the city were to reject the Shell contract on this basis, San Francisco might miss the opportunity to get Community Choice started at all. An ideal solution would be to integrate the Shell contract and the local installation plan, moving them forward as a single program. Recently the SFPUC has proposed allocating $6 million towards energy-efficiency upgrades, the GoSolarSF program, and additional scoping of local build-out. Timing, though, may block integration of Local Power’s scientific analysis of load distribution, efficiency targets, and generation potential. We are working with Supervisor Campos, LAFCO, and the SFPUC to make the commitment to build-out as strong as possible.
Meanwhile, Marin Clean Energy has remained stable despite many attempts by PG&E to attack and undermine it, and is now making progress in building renewable-energy and efficiency installations” (see page 5).
An additional curveball for both CleanPowerSF and MCE has come with PG&E’s recent announcement that it will soon offer customers what it calls a 100%-green option. This program, however, would be based entirely on Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) that fail to meet even California Renewable Portfolio Standards.
Sierra Club California is a party in a proceeding with the California Public Utility Commission to force PG&E to adopt RECs that qualify under the California Renewable Portfolio Standard, and to address potential monopolistic behavior.
The Sierra Club will continue to work with our allies to ensure that San Francisco finds a clear path forward with CleanPowerSF to genuinely encourage the greatest possible installation of local and regional renewable-energy generation, and energy efficiency.
Contact the San Francisco Board of Supervisors now to urge them to support the CleanPowerSF Community Choice program, with extensive local generation of renewable energy and energy-efficiency improvements.
In coming weeks we expect that there will be further opportunities for readers to take action to support a strong CleanPowerSF. To be sure of receiving e-mail updates and alerts from the Bay Chapter, sign up at http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageNavigator/CHP_SFBay_SignUp.
David Gray, chair,
Sierra Club Bay Chapter Energy Committee