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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Sun

Air Date: Week of

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When San Franciscans go to the polls next month, they'll be voting on two propositions that could make the city the country's leader in renewable energy. Jeff Hoffman reports.


CURWOOD: Sparked by the rolling blackouts in California earlier this year, a number of communities are making long-term investments in non-polluting energy generated by the sun, the wind, and the Earth's natural heat. On election day, San Franciscans will decide whether to make their city home to the largest city-run renewable energy project in the United States. From San Francisco, Jeff Hoffman reports.

HOCHSCHILD: This is it. You can see, this is the twelve panel array, 1.4 kilowatts, and it's angled at 30 degrees, south facing.

HOFFMAN: San Francisco is famous for its fog, but it's a clear day and the city is bathed in sunlight, as David Hochschild scampers up a ladder to show off the array of twelve solar panels he installed on the roof of his Victorian house last year. The window-like panels contain photovoltaic cells, or PVs, which capture sunlight and turn it into electricity.

HOCHSCHILD: During the daytime, when it's producing more energy than the house is consuming, it feeds back into the grid and your meter runs backwards, and there's no greater pleasure in the world than seeing your electric meter run backwards.

HOFFMAN: The set-up costs him about $11,000. That's a substantial investment. But Hochschild, who works as an aide to San Francisco's mayor, says it makes both economic and environmental sense.

HOCKSCHILD: You look at the consequences of the way we make our electricity now, all the emissions caused by coal and oil fired power plants, and it's just not sustainable. We have to change and we have to change now.

HOFFMAN: Political leaders also want to make a dramatic change in the way San Francisco gets its electricity. For several years, progressives here have pushed the city to take an active stand on renewable energy. The power crisis that hit California a year ago, shutting down traffic lights and darkening city offices, has helped to generate broad public support for renewables, says San Francisco Supervisor, Mark Leno. He backed a ballot measure, Proposition B, that would authorize the city to sell $100 million in revenue bonds to finance wind and solar energy.

LENO: Our costs have escalated in an unimaginable fashion, so now, wind generated power or solar generated power is actually competitive. This is the way of the future. We cannot build our way out of this with more fossil fuel generators.

HOFFMAN: If voters approve Prop B, the largest renewable energy bond in the country, over several years the city of San Francisco would install solar panels on its sunniest municipal buildings, parking lots, and covered reservoirs, and put wind turbines on other city property. San Francisco now gets its electricity from a city-owned hydroelectric dam and from investor owned Pacific Gas & Electric. Under Prop B, renewables would generate about a third of the city government's power consumption. If the city pays off the bonds in 15 years, it would get 25 years of virtually free electricity. Supervisor Mark Leno.

LENO: Forget the high cost of natural gas. We would be our own masters at that point.

HOFFMAN: Another proposition on the November ballot, Prop H, would allow the city to issue bonds for solar and other renewable energy investments, without having to seek voter approval each time. The first project under that initiative would put 50 megawatts of solar panels, enough to power 50,000 houses, on private homes and businesses. If voters say "yes" to both Props. B and H, San Francisco would boast the world's largest solar project. Dan Reicher, a Fellow at the World Resources Institute, who served as Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration, says San Francisco's ambitious plans would set a new benchmark.

REICHER: That's a very substantial percentage of annual U.S. production. Particularly, solar photovoltaics are still a relatively small percentage of renewables' output. So, something on the order of 25 megawatts would be quite substantial. It would be a great step for them to take; they would be far out front of other cities in terms of the actual investment.

HOFFMAN: While San Francisco is sometimes called "Fog City", studies indicate it gets nearly as much direct sunlight as Sacramento, the state capital. There, the Sacramento municipal utility district, a voter controlled public power company, leads the country in solar generated electricity. In fact, cities and public utilities have invested far more in renewable energy than investor owned utilities--a trend that continues to grow. Chicago and Los Angeles have their own solar plants, while Austin, Texas, will buy 86 megawatts worth of wind power this year.


HOFFMAN: If San Franciscans approve the city's renewable energy plans next month, it will be a big shot in the arm for companies that are trying to build businesses out of the small, but rapidly growing, market for solar energy hardware. Across the San Francisco Bay, in Berkeley, Powerlight buys solar photovoltaic cells, or PVs, and builds them into tiles and panels that go on the roofs of office buildings. Janice Lin is the company's director of business development.

LIN: This initiative in San Francisco would be huge, from the standpoint of the solar industry. In 1999, the total volume of PVs shipped worldwide, for all applications, was only about 200 megawatts. So, if San Francisco ultimately installs 30 to 35, that's a huge chunk of worldwide PV made. So, it would sure be a big boost for the current manufacturers to invest and build up their capacity.

HOFFMAN: And more capacity would mean lower prices. In the three decades since solar cells were developed for use in the NASA space program, the cost of the devices, which are made out of silicon, have fallen significantly. Still, solar energy remains unaffordable for most home owners and cash strapped local governments. But if cities like San Francisco follow through on plans to make renewable energy a big part of their power consumption, it would help to change the economics of clean energy. And that would help make abundant but under-used resources like wind and solar important parts of America's carbon-heavy energy diet. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman, in San Francisco.



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