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SF Plan to Buy Clean Energy from Dirty Company Stirs Controversy

RP Siegel | Monday January 28th, 2013 | 0 Comments

san francisco nightThe path to a sustainable future will surely be filled with detours, wrong turns and dead ends. There will be times when we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils and sometimes to forgive the sins of bad actors attempting to rehabilitate their reputations with earnest new proposals. That is, at least in part, just human nature. As Sir Walter Scott once said, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.” The path, of course, although being paved with good intentions, might still lead us away from climate hell, but will it do so quickly enough to make a difference? Other questions raised by today’s story include, “Should you buy a good product from a bad company?” And, maybe even a little bit of, “Do you believe in the possibility of redemption?”

What I am referring to is a $19.5 million proposal passed by the City of San Franciso’s Board of Supervisors back in September, known as CleanPower SF,  which will require roughly half of the city’s residents to purchase green electricity from Shell Energy, a North American subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, rather than from PG&E, despite the fact that the change would increase residential utility bills by an average of $23 per month. An additional $1.4 million outreach campaign, aimed at promoting the program and informing the public of their choices, was approved last week.

At first, the SF Public Utility Commission (PUC) was hoping that they could acquire green power at a lower cost than what PG&E is charging for their power (which comes from a multitude of sources), but failing to do so, they enlisted the help of Shell Energy. According to press reports, 180,000 customers will be automatically enrolled in the new plan, though they will have the ability to opt-out if they so choose. This has drawn a great deal of protest, both from those objecting to higher prices, as well as those citing Shell’s rather dubious record across a wide range of issues from social justice to environmental impact in regions ranging from Nigeria to Alaska. Meanwhile, some environmental groups are pleading for people consider the larger climate change issue,  arguing that clean power, no matter who it comes from, or what it costs, is urgently needed now.

There is a Facebook page, Stop San Francisco Shell Shock, decrying everything from the 100 jobs that the plan will supposedly cost the area, to the price of power under this plan, to a litany of Shell’s accumulated misdeeds. There is also a petition running on Change.org, funded by the local electrical workers union, for those opposing the campaign to sign.

According to PUC spokesman Tyrone Jue, the rates presented to the board are the maximum allowable and are “just the beginning of the conversation” suggesting that the final rate will likely be lower.

Proponents of the plan say that the rates will eventually decrease when competitors begin offering their own green energy plans. PG&E has already announced a plan for green energy, mostly likely at a cheaper rate than Shell Energy.

As it stands now, though, the PUC appears to be counting on the fact that either people will be willing to pay considerably more for green power, or that they simply will passively go along with the automatic increase.

As to the lesser of the two evils question, I think it’s best to take the long view and ask what is most sustainable. Perhaps companies like Shell need to see that money can indeed be made in renewables which could persuade them to invest more in that technology and less in lobbying for more access to oil and gas in sensitive areas. It’s fine to vote with your dollars. That is something we should all do. But it’s also important to not cut off your nose to spite your face.

Perhaps, rather than charging people more for green power, they should add a one cent per gallon tax to Shell gasoline and let that cover the difference.

[Image credit: davidyuweb: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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