San Francisco Bay Guardian, 2002-03-20, v36-n25 - 25ogpow


Public power moves forward

Activists plan a new strategy amid debate over the scope of the next measure

By Savannah Blackwell

The campaign to bring public power to San Francisco officially reconvened at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union hall March 14, amid debate over how to frame the issue and the release of a plan by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the San Francisco Department of the Environment laying out some modest ways to increase the city's role as a power provider.

About 40 activists from groups that supported last year's effort, including the San Francisco Green Party and labor organizations, met and started a series of strategy sessions aimed at winning a public power measure on next November's ballot.

“We're putting the legs on the body to move it forward,” said Ross Mirkarimi, who directed the 2001 public power campaigns. “We're getting all the major players who were involved in the last public power campaign and those that were not as involved but should be into this big-tent populist organization.”

The campaign is hoping to reach out more to organizations in ethnic communities, Mirkarimi said.

The group is facing a host of challenges, including raising money and deciding how best to shape the final measure. The San Francisco Labor Council, which Mirkarimi said kicked in more than $100,000 to last year's effort, may not be as big a player this time around: after local and state labor organizations shelled out more than $300,000 trying to elect Harry Britt to a state assembly seat March 5, labor officials confirmed at the meeting that there's likely to be far fewer dollars for this year's public power campaign.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and its allies spent more than $2 million to defeat public power last fall.

“I believe there's a larger pool of talent and resources and spirit that can comprise a very strong campaign against the gargantuan PG&E out there,” Mirkarimi said. “We can't depend on one group this time.”

Board of Supervisors president Tom Ammiano reintroduced Proposition F the measure that would have created an elected body charged with taking over PG&E's transmission system shortly after it lost on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Advocates are debating whether this year's measure should call for an outright takeover of PG&E's system. Some, including SFPUC assistant general manager Ed Smeloff, who is a nationally known expert on public power, say the city should start by managing and expanding its power supply and getting cleaner power on the local grid. That way, he reasoned, PG&E and the city's business community would be less likely to bitterly oppose the effort.

Ammiano disagrees. “There's an assumption that [such a move] won't be as controversial,” he said. “But the days of walking hand in hand with PG&E are over.”

Ammiano also said he is committed to seeing through a measure that calls for an elected rather than appointed power authority to oversee the city's shift to a publicly controlled electric utility. “I feel strongly about that,” Ammiano said. “That way it is more accountable and more accessible.”

Reliable power

Smeloff, in conjunction with energy-efficiency experts at the Department of the Environment, released a plan March 13 outlining three different ways the city can make sure it has enough electricity to supply residents, businesses, and city agencies for the next 10 years.

The plan came as a result of a mandate by the Board of Supervisors. In May 2001, Sup. Sophie Maxwell led the charge to direct the SFPUC to come up with an energy plan for the city that would allow for alternatives to Mirant Corp.'s proposal to more than double the power produced by its Potrero Hill power plant, which lies in Maxwell's district and is one of the largest sources of pollution in the city.

The plan also reports on how the city can permanently shutter the aging Hunters Point power plant, another large source of pollution, which PG&E must do under a 1998 agreement with the city.

Despite an inaccurate report in the San Francisco Chronicle, none of the plan's three options are headed to November's ballot. In fact, while Smeloff's plan is compatible with a range of public power options, and Smeloff has long been on record as favoring public power in San Francisco, the plan never promotes a specific model for municipalizing the local utility.

The Chronicle story implied that Smeloff was promoting a fall charter amendment to put the city in the business of selling power, but without taking over PG&E's lines. Smeloff told us there's no such plan in the works. The charter amendment he was talking about, he said, would give the city's power agency the right to issue revenue bonds for whatever public power project the supervisors and the voters approve.

Still, the Chron story did get one essential point right: Smeloff's plan does indeed recommend the city get into the power business, which is far more than any previous report from the SFPUC has ever done.

And there are, in fact, some (including Smeloff) who favor offering the voters a more moderate plan than last fall's Prop. F. That has some public power advocates worried: PG&E and its allies, including Mayor Willie Brown, might decide to promote a watered-down proposal that would undermine a real public power effort and ultimately leave the private utility in control of the local power grid for the indefinite future.

“[The plan] plays very heavily into the public power movement, and I'm enthusiastic about [Smeloff's] desire to get all the players at the table,” Mirkarimi said. “But I caution him not to get too far ahead of public power advocates so we're not diluting the ultimate objectives.”

PG&E or green energy?

Most of Smeloff's plan addresses energy reliability. Under one proposal the city would rely on PG&E to build a new transmission line running from Redwood City to San Francisco's southern border that would create an additional 350 megawatts (360 additional megawatts are needed by 2012, assuming the immediate closure of the Hunters Point power plant). Currently there is only one transmission line bringing in power from outside the city. Reliance on that line has contributed to major blackouts, including the one in December 1998 that left one million people without power.

Under another proposal, the city would support Mirant's plans to build a new 540 megawatt unit at the Potrero Hill power plant site. Smeloff's plan says if the city chooses this option, it should demand the new plant's cooling system not rely on water from the bay but instead use cleaned-up sewer water from the Southeast Wastewater Treatment Plant and the 37-year-old unit be shut down. Some additional renewable sources of energy would be developed by the city.

A third scenario calls for the city to build new, and mostly green, sources of energy and reduce consumption. Ideas include installing solar panels on the roof of the Moscone Center, providing efficient refrigerators for apartments owned by the San Francisco Housing Authority, building wind turbines at Altamont Pass, expanding the city's hydroelectric capacity by building an additional turbine along the Hetch Hetchy system, and building plants that use exhaust heat to produce steam and electricity at Fifth and Jesse Streets and the new Mission Bay campus of UC San Francisco.

None of these options would require the city to take over PG&E's transmission system.

At the Board of Supervisors’ March 18 meeting, Ammiano called the plan "a good starting point" and pointed out that a feasibility study to determine whether the city should take over PG&E's transmission system is already underway at the Local Agency Formation Commission.

“This is a set of draft recommendations talking about a greater role for the city in terms of procuring and planning for our power needs,” Smeloff said. “What we're trying to do is put clean energy in place.” 

E-mail Savannah Blackwell at



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