Why is San Francisco’s mayor opposing clean energy?

As you’d expect, San Francisco is no slouch when it comes to sustainability. According to a SustainLane survey, it’s the second greenest city in America, lagging just a little behind Portland, Oregon. But as city officials work to push San Francisco to the very top of the list, they’re running into opposition from an unexpected quarter: Mayor Gavin Newsom.

At issue is a piece of legislation called the Clean Energy Act, which the city’s Board of Supervisors last week agreed to put on the ballot this November for residents’ approval. The new law would require the city to find 51 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2017, rising to 75 percent by 2030 and finally 100 percent by 2040. Crucially, it would also mandate city officials to conduct a feasibility study to determine the best ways to meet the city’s ambitious renewable-energy goals.

The bill’s critics say the feasibility study is a cover for a public takeover of the city’s monopoly energy provider, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). “Call it what it is,” says Newsom. “I think it’s rather cynical.” That’s sparked a firestorm of accusation and counter-accusation: Baysiders have long questioned their mayor’s close ties to the utility company, especially after he blocked efforts to shut down a fossil-fuel plant in southeastern San Francisco earlier this year. Local greens also point out that Newsom’s chief political consultant, Eric Jaye, is currently working as an advisor to PG&E’s anti-Clean Energy campaign.

Supporters of the Clean Energy Act say the legislation doesn’t mandate a takeover of PG&E, but would give the city power to switch to public energy if that proved the best way to meet renewable-energy goals. In practice, that probably amounts to the same thing: Despite a few high-profile publicity stunts, PG&E  has shown little willingness to invest in renewables. “The private industry is not going to take that risk,” says Supervisor Geraldo Sandoval, one of the Clean Energy Act's backers. “It’s always going to take the cheap way out, which is fossil fuels.”

In opposing the Clean Energy Act, Newsom apparently hopes to duck that debate, insulating himself from the public-energy controversy as he prepares for a likely gubernatorial run. That may well turn out to be a smart political calculation; still, it’s disappointing to see San Francisco’s mayor - whose statewide prominence stems in large part from his reputation as a green crusader - begin to put his own political trajectory ahead of the interests of the city he’s using as a springboard.