Berkeley Takes On Energy Crisis

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The San Francisco Chronicle


Let no one accuse Berkeley of shirking the search for solutions to the energy crisis.

The city’s bureaucracy was given a tall order Tuesday night when the City Council ordered it to cook up a huge menu of options, ranging from municipalization of the electric system to a crash diet of 20 percent less energy.

“Someone counted 56 items,” said Neal De Snoo, the city’s energy officer.

Most of the items are alternative versions of similar proposals, but even so, the large number of different and sometimes conflicting ideas will tax staff resources between now and March 20, the date that the council wants to see the results, De Snoo said.

Mayor Shirley Dean said the most immediate priority is the 20 percent energy reduction, considerably more ambitious than the goals set by most other cities.

“I don’t want to hear that we can’t do the 20 percent goal,” Dean said. “It might take time, but it can be done.” She said the city had succeeded in 20 percent reductions in its own electricity use, and that it could work with homes and businesses through aggressive public education, incentives and financial help for low-income residents from the state and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

She also urged addition of clean energy, especially solar. The city’s Ecology Center also suggests a wind farm for the former city dump at the Berkeley Marina.

The Berkeley council’s let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach stands in contrast to that of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which voted Monday to put a measure on the November ballot to make San Francisco and Brisbane a municipal utility district. The vote was a long-sought victory for a 30-year campaign waged by public power advocates.

Forming a municipal utility, which would take control of electrical distribution and retailing as is done now in 23 California cities, is one option on the Berkeley menu. But the council, unlike San Francisco supervisors, has so far heeded staff advice to do more study before offering it up to the voters.

A report to the council from Acting City Manager Weldon Rucker said municipalization requires a long time to implement and “will probably not become available before the worst of the current crisis has passed.”

“I think it is very doubtful that we’d municipalize the system,” Dean said.

Rucker’s report said Berkeley would have to confirm that the city could acquire power more cheaply than PG&E and, as a nonprofit operation, could run an electric business with lower overhead. Equally important, the report said, is the uncertain cost to acquire and, if necessary, upgrade the aging distribution system in Berkeley.

Still, the city is continuing to give serious attention to municipalization and other long-term options.

A joint proposal by Dean and Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek favored a “Berkeley Power Authority” that could buy power in bulk more cheaply than PG&E and make it available to Berkeley residences and businesses through the PG&E system. Such an approach would require a change in state law in order to make sure that customers would be enrolled in the city program by default, with the “opt out” possibility of choosing another provider if they wish.

Also proposed was having the city join with other local governments in regional purchasing and possibly joint ownership of generating facilities. Another idea is to have the existing East Bay Municipal Utility District, which supplies East Bay water, become the area’s electricity provider.

Councilwoman Dona Spring urged council support of a state power authority, as proposed by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Sacramento, to construct and operate power plants (except nuclear) as well as transmission and distribution facilities.

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