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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

PG&E Steals SF Activists' Thunder -- Make That Sunlight -- With New Solar Power Plan

Posted By on Wed, Feb 25, 2009 at 10:53 AM

click to enlarge More attractive than ever. - DAVID BLAIKIE
  • David Blaikie
  • More attractive than ever.


San Francisco-based utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced yesterday that it will be undertaking a $1.5 billion project to produce more solar energy for its customers throughout the state. The initiative, which includes plans to build new solar-power plants, represents the company's first direct investment in renewable power production in more than 10 years.

The announcement, which picked up plenty of state and national headlines this morning, earned the less-than-cuddly corporation plaudits from organizations including the Solar Electric Power Association and Natural Resources Defense Council. But in the political hothouse populated by San Francisco's own energy activists, the initiative is being met with something close to a harrumph.

That's because the city is already pushing ahead with its own green-power project, called CleanPowerSF, a "Community Choice Aggregation" or CCA plan that seeks to bypass PG&E in favor of more eco-friendly sources of power. As we reported last month, the city's CCA model is riddled with problems, including a big financial risk for ratepayers and a subtly coercive method of obtaining customers. With PG&E's new solar-power initiative, CCA's chief selling point -- that it offers greener power than the status quo -- takes a hit.

"It's a way of trying to tactically maneuver in response to CCAs," says Paul Fenn, CEO of the San Francisco-based consultancy Local Power Inc. Fenn, the originator of the CCA model, is now steering CleanPowerSF as a city-hired contractor. For the mammoth utility, Fenn added, the amount of new solar energy being proposed "would be a relatively superficial effort." (PG&E says its new solar power sources would meet about 1.3 percent of its total electricity demand.)

Jonathan Marshall, a PG&E spokesperson, had this response to Fenn's criticisms: It ain't all about CCA. "This program serves our entire service area," Marshall said. "It's a little bit grandiose to think that this is aimed at some CCA activists in San Francisco." Marshall said the company wants to build its own sources of renewable energy to ensure that it can meet new state requirements that a third of California's energy come from renewable sources by 2020. (The company's previous plans to buy green power from smaller contractors are looking dicey, since renewable energy-producers are having a hard time raising capital in the current credit markets.) "You don't invest $1.5 billion lightly," Marshall said.

What effect will this have on San Francisco's plans to spend $1.2 billion of borrowed money on its own clean-energy efforts? While CCA is the darling of left-wing ideologues and their chief propaganda organ, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, it has come in for criticism from economists and from city officials in the East Bay, who concluded after lengthy study that CCA wasn't a viable means of procuring power. Despite these red flags, a cadre of left-wing supervisors devoted to implementing novel power schemes has so far managed to push the plan forward. Whether this latest bump in the road will slow the CCA bandwagon is anybody's guess.

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Peter Jamison

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