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Posted 1:13 pm
October 3, 2012

San Francisco residents could switch to renewable energy options to power their homes

An initiative that was almost a decade in the making will finally find its way into the homes of San Francisco residents in mid-2013.

CleanPowerSF, a program that encourages citizen power in purchasing energy, intends to supply 100 percent renewable alternative energy to its customers by using Shell Energy North America to help administer the program. This legislation will allow San Francisco to gather the community’s purchasing power to buy electricity and create competition in the business of public power and utilities.

Customers who decide to make the switch will be guaranteed 100 percent renewable energy coming from resources like solar, wind, biogas and geothermal power.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has paved the way for a greener tomorrow by approving this historic initiative. The goal is to switch close to half of the residential power in the city to renewable energy and provide customers with choices of which company to use, not just PG&E.

“It’s a competition and a partnership, PG&E owns all the power lines and grids in the city, so we still rely on them to transmit, distribute, bill and take care of customer service,” Charles Sheehan, spokesman for the SF Public Utilities Commission, said. “But what this does is give people the option to go green and get their power from renewable sources that the city is producing.”

Community Choice Aggregation programs were established in California during the energy crisis in the early 2000s. In January 2001 then-Gov. Gray Davis declared a state of emergency and cut power to several hundred thousand customers in the state because power companies including PG&E were on the verge of bankruptcy.

CCA programs allow cities and counties to gather the purchasing power of the community to facilitate their own electricity. Instead of using third-party sources, what the city aims to do is create its own facilities and produce public power with the public’s money.

According to Sheehan, PG&E generates about 20 percent renewable energy and uses energy sources like natural gas and nuclear power to get electricity to its customers. But this switch might raise energy bills anywhere from $5 to $50, according to Sheehan.

“PG&E customers that are on tier one on average will see a $9 increase and depending on how much power you use; it could go up from there,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan explained that most residential customers are on tier one, which is the baseline. Tiers are based on energy usage of a building and can be found on any PG&E bill.

The CleanPowerSF website said rates will become more stable because renewable sources like solar and wind power never run out unlike fossil fuel-based power, which is subject to market supply-and-demand rates.

Money issues aside, Huia Hutton, SF State lecturer in the department of geography and human environmental studies, made it clear power supply is only a piece of the green puzzle.

“Do we just focus on the supply side? No. I think too many people are looking for a quick fix, but we need to look at human behavior, we’ve got this clean green energy, but it won’t do any good if people are just wasting it,” Hutton said.

His big concern is whether greener and more efficient energy means that people will use more of it.

“It’s part of the evolution of the human experience, it’s a transition, but it’s more of an open-ended process, rather then a solution,” Hutton said.

Although he was previously undecided and motioned to postpone the discussion, San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener is one of many supervisors now on board with the program.

“I am all for it. It will provide a choice for our city; going with Shell is not ideal, but Shell is our only option,” Wiener said. “In the long run we will be reusing our own energy.”

Shell Energy North America is a subsidiary of the multinational energy company Shell Oil Company. The Public Utilities Commission has signed a five-year contract with the company.

SF State student Ally Kagan, a biology major, weighed in on the initiative.

“I think its a great thing, San Francisco in general is already a good model and this will be another step towards saving the environment,” Kagan, 18, said.

Getting on board with the program will be made easy for San Francisco locals. Residents will be sent letters five months before the switch to 100 percent renewable power takes place. Customers will be instructed that renewable power is available and those who don’t wish to make the change can opt out within the following five months at no additional charge.

“After six months there will be a minimal fee if you decide to opt out, but we are putting (in) a lot of work to keep people informed. There will be outreach to educate customers, especially those who don’t speak the language,” Sheehan said.

These changes are expected to start in mid-2013. Until then, the SF Public Utilities Commission will be offering renewable energy in phases. Locations will be posted on the website once the commission determines where to start. As the process begins, customers are more than welcome to opt in instead of waiting until it’s offered.

“I think the switch to renewable energy should be done with caution,” environmental studies major Lauren Smith said. “I would indeed see myself switching; however, if the supplier for the energy is indeed supplied by Shell and they supply that energy in an environmentally degrading way, then there is little motivation for those on the fence about the issue.”