A Conversation with Ambassador Sklar on Solar in San Francisco

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By Neal Dikeman, Partner, Jane Capital Partners LLC, Founding Contributor, Cleantechblog.com, and Contributing Editor, AltEnergyStocks.com. This week I had an opportunity to have a conversation with Ambassador Richard Sklar, the President of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, on renewables and solar power in San Francisco. This is his second stint at the SF PUC, and besides a time in politics, Ambassador Sklar has served as an executive in and advisor to private manufacturing and engineering firms. I had met him and several of the top SF PUC team at Solar 2006 in San Jose, and had been extremely impressed with the SF PUC, both in their commitment of senior people to a solar initiative, and the diligence with which they were approaching the issues. So I was certainly curious to hear what he had to say. For those of you that do not know, the SF PUC is the San Francisco owned power, water, and sewage provider for much of the municipal facilities in San Francisco. From their website: “The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is a department of the City and County of San Francisco that provides water, wastewater, and municipal power services to San Francisco. Under contractual agreement with 28 wholesale water agencies, the SFPUC also supplies water to 1.6 million additional customers within three Bay Area counties. The SFPUC system provides four distinct services: Regional Water, Local Water, Wastewater (collection, treatment and disposal), and Power. ” I asked Ambassador Sklar about the SF PUC sustainability plan, found here, and what that meant for San Francisco power. He asked me to consider that the SF PUC does 3 things – supplies water, cleans dirty water, and supplies power to San Francisco. As far as sustainability? According to Ambassador Sklar, San Francisco makes a concerted attempt to do the job with no more harm than necessary, and to be as clean as possible while doing it. After all, this is San Francisco. On the power side, the SF PUC definitely thinks sustainable and green, and if Ambassador Sklar and his team are any indication, very, very big. They actually have established a network of solar monitoring stations around the city to measure our solar resource. Their primary source of power is the Hetch Hetchy hydroelectic power system. The SFPUC also owns a number of photovoltaic solar installations around the city, the largest of these is the marquee 675 kW system on Moscone Center. They also have 255 kW of solar and operate a waste gas cogen facility at the Southeast Waste Water Treatment Plant, and have a 283 kW solar project going in at Pier 96. Ambassador Sklar shared that they are expecting to shortly launch solicitations to buy solar power from private producers (unlike private parties, the SF PUC has been unable to take advantage of state and federal rebates and tax incentives) – which is quite exciting, and like Moscone Center will be a marquee event for solar in California. I did ask about the Moscone Center project, after all solar is not exactly a low cost resource, and 675 kW is not much of a power plant to get excited about in the grand scheme of things. But it seems the SF PUC certainly understands this, and is thinking much longer term. Ambassador Sklar was quick to answer that Moscone Center is just a demonstration project – nothing more, simply a first step in turning San Francisco power greener. The quote I liked, “we’ll be serious about solar in San Francisco when we cover the airport and all of our reservoirs in solar cells.” According to Ambassador Sklar the Moscone Center and other solar PV installations are just toys, demonstrations to say, in San Francisco we believe in green power, and we’re here to stay in solar, so pay attention. That being said, they are also serious about delivering economic power to our city, and have no intention of igorning the cost side of solar – hence the intensive efforts by the SF PUC team in demonstration projects and analysis to understand what it will cost before they make a big plunge. [I do find it mildly humorous that while the SF PUC may understand that their solar install is just a demonstration – the solar industry considered the Moscone RFP the biggest thing to hit it in years. Obviously the industry still has a lot of maturing to do.] We also had a chance to talk about what the end game might be for San Francisco solar and renewable power – where exactly this first step was taking us. I have to say, these guys have much bigger ideas longer term; they are not sitting still. Throughout the discussion Ambassador Sklar described his vision of green power in San Francisco, and I left the meeting thinking seriously about the series of “What ifs” that he posed in our conversation? What if we mandated that every new building in San Francisco must include solar panels? What if we cover the aiport and our physical city owned infrastructure in solar panels? What if we build our own wind farms in Northern California, and expand Hetch Hetchy hydro power? What if we do put tidal power under the Golden Gate (San Francisco already announced in September that it is going to explore tidal power potential under the Golden Gate). What if we just make ourselves go green? But I’m not sure that Richard Sklar and San Francisco consider these to be “what-ifs”, but more like “whens”. They’ve got millions invested into green power already, and show no signs of stopping. Note: If you want to hear it for yourself, Ambassador Sklar is scheduled to speak at the upcoming GreenVest 2007 Conference in San Francisco.


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