Local Action for Energy Alternatives

First the bad news: Pending ballot recounts, San Francisco public-power supporters have apparently failed in their referendum effort to create a municipally owned utility in northern California's largest city to replace the existing private-power monopoly. The excruciatingly close tally (public power lost by barely 1%) means that, for now, San Francisco will not join Los Angeles and Sacramento in having the state's third large electrical "muni."

Lessons from the failed campaign are numerous. One is that despite obvious price gouging by private utilities, beating them at the ballot box won't be easy, either on the West Coast or anywhere else. San Francisco's public-power advocates thought (not unreasonably) that the unconscionable behavior of California's deregulated electrical suppliers over the past year would make victory inevitable. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the city's present power provider, chalked up no less than a 243% profit in the third quarter of 2001; voters should have been enraged, but if they were, that rage didn't translate into a voting majority.

Before condemning average San Franciscans for apathy and lack of awareness, however, certain factors have to be taken into account. First, we are at war, or something approximating war (perhaps police action is a better description). In wartime, conservatism gains the temporary upper hand on the home front; people tend to rally around familiar institutions -- even rapacious utility companies. Secondly, in the case of San Francisco, the entire municipal establishment was against public power. The business community's opposition, a knee-jerk reaction to "socialism," was to be expected; what hurt was the betrayal of the city's charismatic Mayor Willie Brown, who earlier implied support for the referendum measure and then reversed himself. The mayor's clever tap dance at least reveals the true nature of his supposed progressive credentials to those who misinterpreted him as a political Galahad rather than a Machiavelli.

The main factor in the defeat of public power, though, was undoubtedly the estimated $2 million corporate opponents (chiefly PG&E) pumped into the campaign, as well as the drawn-out legal battle they promised should public power prevail. Money spent on media advertising can turn almost any referendum around; disgraced tobacco companies have proven that over the past decade by reversing public opinion in the midst of highly popular anti-smoking campaigns.

Future attempts to establish public power will have to be undertaken more carefully. Proponents will need to understand what they're up against (organized money) and prepare the way labor unions have historically prepared for major strikes or organizing drives -- by compiling war chests to sustain their efforts. Negative ad campaigns will need to be answered promptly in kind. Since the US Supreme Court has ruled that money equals free speech, corporate spending in referendums is unlikely to be limited any time in the immediate future. To the extent they can, those favoring public power will have to match the private utilities dollar for dollar and television spot for television spot -- or close to it. Even being outspent by only three to one instead of ten to one can make all the difference.

If supporters of a progressive energy policy lost a heartbreaker in the defeat of San Francisco's public-power initiative (perhaps a temporary setback, since proponents promise to be back in two years), they also had a big win. The good news from the November vote is that companion referendums to advance the development of alternative energy passed easily. City voters approved two measures to increase solar and wind power usage by permitting the issuance of municipal revenue bands totalling $100 million for the construction of solar panels and wind turbines.

Estimates are that within a year, San Francisco will be producing 20 megawatts of solar energy from rooftop units on public schools and other city-owned buildings, as well as 30 megawatts from municipal windmills in the breezy Bay area, enough to supply 37,500 homes with electricity; inside of three years, 75,000 urban residential units will be supplied in this manner. Since the city will be generating its own alternative energy sources independent of PG&E, the result will effectively be backdoor public power, proving there's more than one way to skin the utility cat.

The only lingering questions about the alternative-energy plebiscite are why it took so long and why the rest of the country isn't following suit. Sun-filled California presently gets less than 5% of its electricity from solar energy, and domestic customers comprise just 15% of the market for solar panels constructed in the US. By comparison, Germany and Japan consume 55% of the world's available solar power. When it comes to wind power, the situation is even worse, with windmills currently generating only 1% of this country's electricity. According to the American Wind Industry Association (AWIA), we trail world leader Germany in wind-power capacity by a nearly three-to-one margin and are barely ahead of little Denmark, which gets fully 10% of its energy from wind and plans to produce half of its electricity from renewables (primarily wind) by the year 2030.

The reluctance to move heavily into alternative energy is no doubt related to the political influence of America's oil, gas, and coal companies, and the relative cheapness of their products. Concerning the former, there is little that can immediately be done, especially under the present administration of, by, and for oilmen. Price is another matter. Solar and wind power, initially expensive relative to the amount of electricity produced, are becoming less and less costly; the AWIA points out, for example, that electricity generated from wind has declined in price from 38 cents per kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to between 3 and 6 cents in 2001. Today, energy generated by efficient wind farms is economically competitive with that produced by nuclear power plants, and Energy Department studies under the Clinton administration suggested its cost could approximately equal that of natural-gas plants as early as 2002.

Still, America as a whole doesn't invest in alternatives. One major reason is a persistent reliance on the marketplace; we're waiting for private industry to do the job, and to date, big energy interests don't see huge profit potential, which is the spur that prods them into action. A certain inertia arising from a century of thinking only in terms of petroleum and other conventional fuels probably plays a part as well. At any rate, only Enron Corp. of Houston, primarily a natural-gas marketer, has experimented -- and to a limited extent -- with wind.

Given that for any number of reasons (global warming is one) we should move toward renewables, San Francisco's alternative-energy referendums provide an excellent model. Since private industry and the Bush White House, mesmerized by fossil fuels, won't take the lead, state and local governments should. That, coupled with a full conversion to public power, which San Francisco may yet achieve, shows the way to a progressive energy future and a way out from under the thumb of the corporate utilities.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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