RENEWABLE ENERGY:

San Francisco eyes goal of 100% green power by 2020

SAN FRANCISCO -- Outgoing Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) last week launched an initiative that he says will result in 100 percent renewables to meet this city's power demand within a decade.

Newsom, who becomes lieutenant governor of California next month, announced the program during a speech commemorating the completion of the Sunset Reservoir Solar Project, which at 5 megawatts is the largest municipal solar facility in the state.

The project was completed last week and covers an area said to be the size of 12 football fields. The plant, owned and operated by Recurrent Energy, triples the amount of solar energy available to the city government here.

But Newsom is looking for much more. At the ceremony, he announced a $250,000 grant from the Sidney Frank Foundation that will assess how to meet the city's 950-megawatt peak power demand with nothing but renewables by 2020.

Officials admit the city has a long way to go to reach that target. In addition to the 5-MW solar project, the city can claim about 10 MW of distributed solar and 3.5 MW of biogas, leaving more than 900 MW subject to the generation portfolio of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power system, which supplies water and electricity to the city from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

Because the Hetch Hetchy system powers the entirety of the city's municipal power needs, that means about a fifth of electricity demand here is already met with renewable, carbon-free energy -- assuming you consider large hydropower renewable.

Johanna Partin, environmental policy adviser to Newsom, explained that while the state does not list large hydro as a renewable source of energy, Newsom's plan for 100 percent renewables will take the counter view (and will never reach 100 percent if you do not consider large hydro a renewable source). That also means San Francisco will have to rely on PG&E, better efficiency and distributed sources of renewable energy to reach the target.

About 16 percent of PG&E's generation is currently renewable but that number is expected to climb and would jump to about 30 percent if you factor in large hydro. Partin added that the city expects to one day have anywhere from 30 MW to 100 MW of wave-derived energy available, with officials set to launch a 1 MW to 3 MW wave pilot project next year.

"All of these details need to be looked at very carefully," said Partin, referring to the grant that will analyze the city's power mix. "We need to look at what we can do in the city to reduce our energy consumption overall. Energy efficiency will be the biggest and most important part of this."

When asked if Newsom's plan wasn't something of a gimmick or a public relations stunt, Partin defended the vision and said many experts in the electricity field view large hydro plants as a net clean source of energy.

"I don't think it's a publicity stunt," she said in an interview. "I think it's a very aggressive goal. I think it's absolutely doable."

Comparison to waste-recycling effort

San Francisco Environment Director Melanie Nutter compared the effort to the city's recycling program, which she said has exceeded expectations.

"Some say it's an impossible goal to achieve, but they said the same thing about San Francisco's recycling goal, that we would never be able to achieve 75 percent diversion by 2010," she said. "In fact, we surpassed it and have already reached a 77 percent diversion rate."

She added, "I know that we can achieve 100 percent renewably generated electricity by 2020."

Studies of whether U.S. cities are meeting renewable energy targets are fairly rare, partly because it is so difficult to determine a true percentage of renewable energy when electrons from a given utility's mix of generation sources flow into a single pool. An analysis completed in 2007 by SustainLane Government had Oakland leading the way, with 17 percent renewables, followed by Sacramento, San Jose, Portland, Ore., and Boston.

San Francisco did not make the top 10 in that list. The city has long had trouble diversifying its sources of power because it is on a peninsula and cut off from the state's interior, though the recent completion of an undersea cable has changed its outlook (Greenwire, Nov. 30).

Recurrent, meanwhile, will sell power to the city from the Sunset Reservoir Solar Project at a discount over a 25-year power purchase agreement. The project's 24,000 solar panels were constructed with the help of a 30 percent federal tax credit, which city officials say they leveraged to get a better deal on buying the power.