City Pursuing a Greenhouse Gas-Free Electricity Supply
In 2011 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an updated Electricity Resource Plan, which was originally devised in 2002 as part of efforts to close the Hunters Point and Potrero power plants, shuttered in 2006 and 2011 respectively. The new plan centers on making electricity used in San Francisco 100 percent greenhouse gas free by 2030. It’s a challenging goal, particularly since municipal facilities С supplied by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) С are responsible for less than one-fifth of electricity consumed in the City.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) provides most of San Francisco’s electricity, on average 750 megawatts every hour, and is under a state mandate to generate one-third of its supplies through renewable resources by 2020. That’s significantly less than San Francisco’s goal, and presents a challenge to the city’s plan.
The new plan includes a host of recommendations, including promoting “behind the meter” С consumer-based С activities that will reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity use, such as installing renewable energy generation at homes and businesses. With a $2 million annual budget, SFPUC’s GoSolarSF Program provides rebates to San Franciscans who invest in rooftop solar. Roughly 5.5 megawatts of solar power has been installed under the program since it was launched in 2008. In addition, the agency has installed a 32-kilowatt municipal solar array at their Tesla treatment plant, and a 164-kilowatt array at 525 Golden Gate Avenue.
SFPUC has also erected an experimental wind turbine on the Golden Gate Avenue building. The City’s two wastewater treatment plants produce biogas. The Oceanside plant’s maximum capacity is 1.1 megawatts, while the Southeast plant can generate 2.1 megawatts. These energy sources are used to power municipal buildings.
SFPUC’s Hetch-Hetchy dam is a significant source of greenhouse gas-free hydroelectric energy. During spring runoff times, when the dam is most productive, it can approach its maximum capacity of roughly 400 megawatts of power. Hetch-Hetchy-produced electricity is sold to other municipalities, or transmitted to a terminus in Newark, where it’s brought into the City and distributed through PG&E’s system. Under the updated Electricity Resource Plan the City is studying the costs and benefits of building its own transmission line from Newark into San Francisco, cutting PG&E out of the picture. SFPUC is installing a 30-megawatt hydropower facility at their University Mound Reservoir in Portola, which will be operational next year.
SFPUC is only one of many players active in the City’s energy market, which complicates its ability to achieve its greenhouse gas-free goal. “There are different energy producers delivering different mixtures. So that in itself makes it hard to have a unified plan going towards one goal,” explained Charles Sheehan, spokesman for SFPUC’s Power Enterprise. “The fragmentation of the energy market, that’s an obstacle in moving towards the goal,” he continued. Achieving SFPUC’s objective may be made easier by implementation of California’s greenhouse gas emissions cap and trade program, which, starting next year, will force power companies to either emit less or pay for their emissions.
Not everyone thinks it’s possible for San Francisco to become completely greenhouse gas emission free by 2030. “We don’t yet have the technology available in California to use renewables 100 percent,” said Richard McCann, senior associate at Aspen Environmental Group. A particular challenge is how to store renewable energy for use during times when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. Currently, to fill in renewable gaps the City may need to purchase “ancillary services,” basically fossil fuel-powered electricity.
“You can move toward getting as much renewable energy as possible, but you’re not going to get to 100 percent,” said McCann. “Stating a goal doesn’t get you to the goal.” According to McCann there’s enough renewable power in the marketplace to supply the City’s needs, but he doesn’t believe it’s possible to completely rely on it without some greenhouse gas emissions until technology improves.
Barbara George, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Women’s Energy Matters believes San Francisco’s goals are challenging, but achievable. “The grid itself is one way that you fill in for intermittent renewables,” she explained. Her group advocated for the Marin Energy Authority, the state’s first Community Choice Aggregator (CCA). “There are different types of renewables that are available 24-seven,” she insisted. According to George, geothermal energy Сwhich causes earthquakesСbiofuels and hydropower could fill in during periods when renewable generation is insufficient. However, many environmentalists question how “clean” biofuels are, given the fossil fuel-intensive farming, cultivation and harvesting that’s required to produce large quantities of the energy source. George believes that San Francisco was ambitious to set a 100 percent goal; 80 would’ve been easier.
McCann’s skepticism about the City’s plan appears to be matched by San Franciscan’s diminished appetite for clean energy. A recent SFPUC poll of 3,500 residents found that 52 percent would likely stay with PG&E after under a City-sponsored CCA, just three percent more than a similar poll taken last year. Those willing to pay “a little bit more” for wind and solar declined to 37 percent, from 45 percent the year before. And that’s after the estimated increase was dropped by more than half, from $14 more a month to $6. “There is a certain group of people who will buy organic or buy green, and others that don’t have an interest,” said SFPUC chief Ed Harrington. “We never thought it would be overwhelming, but there is a market.”
The City is depending on its CleanPowerSF initiative to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. Under the CCA, SFPUC will purchase greenhouse gas-free electricity on behalf of San Francisco businesses and residents under contract with Shell Energy North America. CleanPowerSF will enroll energy users in phases, first focusing on the 330,000 household customers in the City, which will be offered 100 percent greenhouse gas-free power. Enrolling residential customers won’t achieve the entire goal, but it’s a first step towards providing similar service to San Francisco’s businesses. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors may approve the plan this month.
“The CCA program would be the single largest most effective program we could implement in the Electricity Resource Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Sheehan. “Because the CCA program is designed to be 100 percent renewable, and so if you take all these residential customers and all of a sudden they are receiving energy from 100 percent renewable sources, you are going to drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the City. The CCA would go a long way,” he concluded.
Last year, PG&E posted mailers discouraging customers from switching to CleanPowerSF. All CCA’s by law offer an “opt-out” process; everyone in the CCA’s jurisdiction is automatically enrolled in the program, but can decline participation and return to PG&E if they prefer. According to Sheehan, PG&E is likely to work hard to retain its San Francisco customer base. “They were dragged in front of the CPUC for violating certain rules and regulations regarding the conduct of private utilities toward the CCA. There is a whole history of what PG&E has said and done towards the CCA that goes back ten or fifteen years,” he explained.
The electricity provided under CleanPowerSF is expected to cost households an additional roughly $168 a year. “Ultimately our CleanPowerSF CCA program will be one of the boldest energy programs in the country, whereby people can take control of their personal carbon footprints and reduce them drastically,” concluded Sheehan.
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