SF Mayor Lee fights supervisors over green power

SF Mayor Lee fights supervisors over green power


San Francisco fogIt’s green power vs. greenbacks.

A political power battle is brewing in San Francisco over which entity of government is going to carry out the local implementation of the mandate by the state of California for 33 percent renewable energy by the year 2020. The battle stems from San Francisco being California’s only consolidated city-county. According to SF311, that means, “The mayor is also the county executive and the county board of supervisors acts as the city council.”

The battle pits Mayor Ed Lee on one side and county Supervisors John Avalos and David Campos and progressive activists on the other side. The battle is over whether San Francisco needs CleanPowerSF to accomplish its clean energy goals. CleanPowerSF is a new municipal electric utility authorized under the state’s Community Choice Aggregation law. The CCA law allows cities to unplug from monopoly utilities such as PG&E and form a cooperative to buy power or build their own power plants.

The civil war over clean power in San Francisco flashed to the public’s attention on March 31 when Lee dramatically whited-out the renewable energy goals to be carried out by CleanPowerSF from the city’s Climate Action Plan. Instead of merely deleting the text, the mayor apparently wanted everyone to know that CleanPowerSF was not going to carry out the compliance of the state’s 33 percent clean energy goals for the city.

San Francisco voters repeatedly have rejected ballot measures to take over the city’s private regulated electric monopoly, PG&E. As recently as 2008, voters pulled the plug on local Proposition H, which would have required the city to get 51 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2017.

Under the CCA law, all electricity customers would be automatically transferred to SFCleanPower unless they specifically choose to opt out.  PG&E would continue to handle the billings, maintenance, transmission and distribution of electricity for the entire city and county of San Francisco.  In other words, CleanPowerSF would be the power provider and PG&E merely the power conveyor, distributor and biller.

SFCleanPower advertises that it can buy electricity and build power plants cheaper than PG&E.  San Francisco has a population of 825,000, while PG&E has 5.1 million customers statewide.

In 2010, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, now California’s lieutenant governor, set a goal for the city to be powered by 100 percent by renewable energy in 10 years.  Even current Mayor Lee has issued directions to achieve this goal. This would essentially mean solar and wind power.

Fog Power

This is in a city that has 106 cloudy days per year on average and where fog is a regular feature of San Francisco summers.  A well-known quote mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain is, “The coldest summer I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

And as Carl Nolte wrote in the title to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on Aug. 2005, “Fog Heaven: The Fog Will Come Out Tomorrow or Maybe Not – It’s Summer in the City and That Means Gray Skies.”

San Francisco windmillsWind speeds in the bay reach 20 to 30 miles per hour, enough to power wind turbines. But ugly, giant wind machines would have to be placed around the Golden Gate and on the Coastal Range hills to generate wind energy. This would be a virtual impossibility with opposition rising from the California Coastal Commission, environmentalists and the tourist industry.

Currently, the only wind machines in the mouth of the bay are located on federal land at the Golden Gate National Park (shown in the image nearby).

After spending $4.1 million on planning over the last 10 years to launch an alternative electric buying cooperative to PG&E, the program still remains in the fog and up in the air.

CCA electric cooperatives are already in place in Marin County and in the San Joaquin Valley.  Sonoma County, Berkeley, and San Diego are in various stages of approving such cooperatives.

A recent opinion poll conducted in the liberal university town of Davis by the electrical worker’s union concluded that a plurality was pleased with continuing service from PG&E rather than forming an electricity co-op (no longer posted online – see here).

And the City of Hercules, population 24,060, is moving toward a private solution. The city council approved an agreement on May 28, 2013, for PG&E to take over the Hercules Municipal Utility, rather than form an electricity co-op or join another co-op.   Hercules is located north of the San Francisco Bay.

So the examples of what to do are before San Francisco. But for now the electricity policy fog remains.


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  1. DavidfromLosGatos
    DavidfromLosGatos 28 April, 2014, 10:29

    I think the quote (whomever the source) begins, “the coldest winter I ever spent …”

    Reply this comment
  2. Bill Gore
    Bill Gore 30 April, 2014, 07:25

    PG&E owns The Geysers, on of the world’s largest and most productive geothermal fields. Clean, green, reliable baseline power. Approximately 60% of the Bay Area’s baseline needs. In place for DECADES. So why does everyone refuse to acknowledge even the existence of geothermal power??? What is the problem? Is it not ‘green’ enough? Is geothermal being supressed in some huge conspiracy? I just don’t get it. No one will even mention it….

    Everyone: it is called GEOTHERMAL POWER. It exists. It can be installed almost anywhere on the surface of the earth, and no, it does not require fracking or always cause earthquakes. It is demonstrably cleaner and greener and more reliable than solar or wind.

    Reply this comment
  3. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 30 April, 2014, 08:13

    PG&E has less than 1% of geothermal energy capacity at the Geysers. Its geothermal energy plant died in the 1990’s due to the geothermal field drying up. The City of Santa Rosa revived PG&E’s geothermal power plant by conveying waste water from a 40 mile pipeline to restimulate the power plant.

    Those who falsely believe fracking uses up groundwater should also understand that geothermal power depletes water resources when the well runs dry.

    Geothermal power development is very risky with about two thirds of drilling explorations resulting in dry holes.

    Read below from Wikipedia:

    In 1960, Pacific Gas and Electric began operation of their 11-megawatt plant at the Geysers.[8] The original turbine lasted for more than 30 years and produced 11 MW net power.[9]

    By 1999 the steam to power extraction had begun to deplete the Geysers steam field and production began to drop.[2] However, since October 16, 1997, the Geysers steam field has been recharged by injection of treated sewage effluent, producing approximately 77 megawatts of capacity in 2004.[10] The effluent is piped up to 50 miles (80 km) from its source at the Lake County Sanitation waste water treatment plants and added to the Geysers steam field via geothermal injection.[10] In 2004, 85% of the effluent produced by four waste-water treatment plants serving 10 Lake County communities was diverted to the Geysers steam field.[10] Injecting treated water into the Geysers field increases the amount of power that can be generated.[10]

    The injection of wastewater to the Geysers protects local waterways and Clear Lake by diverting effluent which used to be put into surface waters,[10] and has produced electricity without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.[2]
    Power plants at the Geysers are of the dry steam power plant type, where the steam directly powers the generator.[4]

    In general, the Geysers has1517 MW[13] of active installed capacity with an average production factor of 63% (955 MW).[14]

    In 2013, Calpine Corporation operated 19 plants in 2004[15] but only 15 in 2013[16] of nearly two dozen active plants in the Geysers. Two other plants are owned jointly by the Northern California Power Agency and the City of Santa Clara’s municipal Electric Utility (now called Silicon Valley Power). The Bottle Rock Power plant owned by the U.S. Renewables Group was reopened in 2007.[17] In July 2009, AltaRock Energy planned to drill more than 2 miles (3.2 km) down to create an “enhanced geothermal” project which was abandoned when federal agencies asked for review.[2] Another plant was under development by Ram Power Corporation, formerly Western Geopower, in 2010, but after Ram Power lost both its CEO and CFO in 2013, it was seeking a buyer for its Geysers property.[18]

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    • Bill Gore
      Bill Gore 30 April, 2014, 15:59

      Thanks Wayne. I didn’t know about the treated effluent pipeline. Certainly the business ins and outs of the geothermal business are at least as complicated as solar and wind, with which there are additional tax code incentives/disincentives that muddy the water. I do know that the use of geothermal power goes back to the advent of electricity, the early 20 th century. I also know that while geothermal development is costly, so is conventional gas and petroleum drilling, its just that these energy forms give a faster payback. Geothermal wells can be designed in closed loops (as in Germany), they can incorporate molten sodium metal as the heat exchanger, its just that cheapest design is often a hot rock open system: either tapping into natural supplies of hot water/steam, which are eventually depleted, or pumping cool water down, hot water/steam up. In other words, geothermal development in the USA is presently doomed by our short-term financial fixation. Iceland, as I’m sure you know, runs entirely on geothermal. The west has some of the most abundant geothermal resources on earth, considered the equal or better of those in Iceland, but IMHO we are culturally unable to wrap our minds around it. It isn’t ‘big’ engineering like nuclear, or fast payback like oil and gas……

      Reply this comment
  4. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 30 April, 2014, 19:33

    Mr. Gore

    Go to my July 8, 2010 article “Ghosts Haunt Brown?” at Calwatchdog. There you will find the buried story of how Gov. Brown at the end of his first terms as Governor wanted a legacy and floated something like $250 million in bonds to build two geothermal power plants with the state as developer. After building the first plant, called Bottle Rock, the plant lost water pressure and could not generate enough power to make the plant economically feasible. Brown was stuck with a “ghost plant,” an albatross, a white elephant or whatever you want to call it. But he had to have it buried. So the Metro Water District of Southern California quietly picked up the payments on the bonds and is still making those payments today. Then a few years ago some developers got the idea to restart Bottle Rock power plant by infusing it with the waste water from the City of Santa Rosa. So Bottle Rock is operating today but needs imported water. Moral of story: it is very risky for government to get into the geothermal or renewable energy business. But that is what Community Choice Aggregators like CleanPowerSF, Marin Clean Energy, and others precisely want to do. If PG&E fails at a geothermal power project its stockholders take most of the loss. If a Community Choice Aggregator fails at power plant development its customers take the hit. That is why I wrote this article. Thanks for commenting.

    Reply this comment

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