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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Still Crazy After All These Years: Bay Guardian's Warblings Drown Rational Discussion of Solar Project

Posted By on Tue, May 5, 2009 at 6:38 PM

The price is wrong
  • The price is wrong

A grumpy minority on the Board of Supervisors tries in vain to put the brakes on a renewable power project that makes bad business sense. This may sound familiar to observers of politics in San Francisco, where left-wing Democrats on the board tend to outflank their more moderate colleagues when it comes to pie-in-the-sky energy initiatives.

Not so fast: You haven't seen this movie before. Today some of the board's most staunchly liberal members -- Ross Mirkarimi, David Campos, Chris Daly and John Avalos -- tried to shoot down a deal that would foster construction of a large solar-power plant atop the Sunset District reservoir at 24th Avenue and Ortega. Their reasoning: The deal would result in unfairly high power rates.

Now hold on. This is the same Mirkarimi who has been the foremost advocate of CleanPowerSF, a plan to overhaul city electricity services that economists predict will raise the average resident's power bill by 24 percent. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, an organ of the left that finds it in its heart to love even the daftest of municipal clean-energy initiatives, is also trying to torpedo the Sunset solar plant, reasoning that it doesn't make sense for a private company to be in charge of such a large energy project.

And there's the rub. Mirkarimi and his allies are right. The deal on the table for a solar farm in the Sunset --approved 7-4 today by the supes -- is a bad one. The problem is that their arguments, buttressed by the Guardian's ramblings, are so warped by the ideological prism of the left's decades-old quest for "public power" (a takeover of the local electricity grid from Pacific Gas & Electric Co.) that dollars-and-sense logic gets lost in the sun.

To start, let's take a look at that logic. The city is giving up land for Recurrent Energy, a private, for-profit company, to build a solar-power plant capable of producing five megawatts of energy. The contract approved today by the Board of Supervisors locks in a steady rate for Recurrent of about 23.5 cents per kilowatt-hour over the next 25 years, resulting in a total estimated cost of just over $60 million for the city.

Mirkarimi points out, correctly, that this could turn out to be a fleecing of the first order. When dealing with power from more volatile energy sources, such as oil, it often makes financial sense to lock in a long-term, stable rate, even at the risk of paying slightly more than market value. Solar is a different story. Industry analysts believe solar power is likely to undergo significant price declines in coming years because of technology advances -- and it isn't subject to the political influences or increasing scarcity that drive up the cost of fossil fuels.

Here's a comparison that says a lot. Chinese solar companies recently submitted a proposal to their own government to produce solar power at 14.6 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2012. If they're successful, China will be paying about half as much for its solar power as San Francisco just three years from now. And San Francisco will be stuck paying the same steep rate for decades, as prices continue to drop. In an interview after today's board meeting, Recurrent CEO Arno Harris told SF Weekly that even he doubts market rates for solar power will be 23.5 cents per kilowatt-hour 25 years from now.

"This initiative, even though it's good for the environment, it's bad for business," said Chris Daly, who voted against the contract along with Mirkarimi, Campos and Avalos.

Unfortunately, this easy-to-understand argument was lost amid much less compelling fare. The Guardian -- and, to a lesser extent, Daly and Mirkarimi -- sought to turn this into the latest offensive in the city's energy wars. Driven by anti-corporate paranoia masquerading as journalistic rigor, Guardian publisher Bruce Brugmann and executive editor Tim Redmond have long argued that the city should wrest control of its power grid from PG&E. (They've actually convinced themselves that we're required to do so by federal law. If you're looking for a more detailed recital of this mind-numbing sophistry, please look elsewhere.)

'PG&E... Raker Act... Community Choice Aggregation... Won't anybody listen?'
  • 'PG&E... Raker Act... Community Choice Aggregation... Won't anybody listen?'

In an editorial and subsequent blog posts, the Guardian argues that a private company such as Recurrent shouldn't be involved in power generation in this town. Recurrent has been tapped for the project because it can take advantage of a federal tax break; the Guardian's recommended course of action is that city officials implore House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make an identical $12 million tax break available to San Francisco. In today's board meeting, Daly threw out the suggestion that the city create its own for-profit company to take advantage of the tax break for the sole purpose of building the Sunset solar plant.

This is where non-febrile minds start to tune out.

About an hour into the hearing, Mirkarimi said it best: "I do not believe in year one or year seven that we should be paying the same per kilowatt-hour as we are in year 25." As he spoke, a strange, high-pitched warbling began to ring through the supervisors' chamber; apparently the noise was issuing from Mirkarimi's laptop computer, which a man in a suit whisked away. The sound was like that of a hundred mismatched songbirds dying behind a closed door. It might just as well have been the voices of the city's far left on energy matters, which always manage to obscure clear discussion -- even when they stand to lose as a result.

Solar-panel photo by david.nikonvscanon. Warbler photo by qmnonic.

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Peter Jamison


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