Politics are holding back San Francisco's best shot at reducing carbon emissions
Acidified oceans. Dirty air. Superstorms. Food shortages. Mass migration. War. The International Panel on Climate Change last week released the final installment of its latest authoritative report on the catastrophic effects of global climate change.
In no uncertain terms, the report states, it is urgent that steps be taken to mitigate the worst impacts. The world's cities are the most at risk — yet hold the greatest potential for turning the tide, IPCC scientists noted. Making cities greener is one of the most effective ways to minimize climate change.
But as experts turn to cities in hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, newly released documents suggest that officials in San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's office ordered the most effective strategies for achieving clean energy goals to be removed from the city's plan for combating climate change.
CHANGE OF PLANS
The city's Climate Action Strategy sets out the overarching goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a yardstick consistent with state and regional goals. For 10 years, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission worked on a program that would have given city residents and businesses more access to renewable energy sources to help meet that emissions reduction target.
CleanPowerSF, a municipal power program that would replace Pacific Gas & Electric power for San Francisco customers, would provide electricity from 100 percent, California-certified renewable sources such as solar, wind, small hydro, and other green energy sources.
The Climate Action Strategy calls creation of a renewable energy portfolio a critical strategy for meeting the goal — and that's precisely what CleanPowerSF set out to achieve. Over the course of a decade, millions of dollars were invested and untold staff hours devoted to creating the program.
Yet at the direction of Roger Kim, the mayor's senior advisor on the environment, the city's Department of the Environment removed the Climate Action Strategy's reference to CleanPowerSF before the document was released to the public. The Department of the Environment was also directed to remove reference to PG&E's 100 percent Green Power Option, a program floated as an alternative to CleanPowerSF.
In a Sept. 30 memo to Kim, obtained via a public records request, former Department of Environment Director Melanie Nutter wrote, "At the request of the Mayor's Office, mention of PG&E's 100% Green Power Option and SFPUC's CleanPowerSF program were removed from the Energy Chapter and replaced with the overarching goal of 100% renewable electricity (pgs 16,17)."
Nutter recently stepped down as the director of the agency.
The timing of Nutter's memo is significant. Just weeks earlier, the SFPUC — whose five-member governing board is appointed by the mayor — refused to approve a not-to-exceed rate that would have allowed CleanPowerSF to move forward as planned. Instead of expressing opposition to the rate itself, commissioners expressed their overall opposition to CleanPowerSF before voting it down.
Lee had criticized the cost and mechanisms of CleanPowerSF, without proposing an alternative (see "Power struggle," 9/17/13). His real motivations for deleting these two strategies from the city's Climate Action Strategy report remain unclear, but Lee has long supported PG&E, which stands to lose customers if CleanPowerSF is successful.
NO REAL ANSWER
Both CleanPowerSF and PG&E's green option were held up as pathways toward a greener future in the Climate Action Strategy until the Mayor's Office intervened, leaving no city mechanisms for most San Franciscans to choose renewable energy sources.