Berkeley’s Rush for Green Sidesteps Citizen Commission

By Judith Scherr
Friday December 07, 2007

In a rush for the green, Berkeley officials and their staffs may be bypassing the city’s Energy Commission, members said at a meeting Wednesday.  

Some commissioners also expressed concern with a staff-written draft plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which aims emission-reducing policies at a limited number of energy consumers, leaving out the largest number of Berkeley residents and business owners. 


Solar Financing District  

process questioned 

Mayor Tom Bates’ aide Cisco DeVries’ idea to create a “solar financing district,” “caught everyone by surprise,” Neal DeSnoo, the city’s energy officer and secretary to the commission, told commissioners. 

The unintended consequence of the publicity around the idea has been that people considering going solar have stepped back to wait and see what the city has to offer. “People stopped signing contracts,” DeSnoo said. 

The financing plan, still sketchy at this point and not likely to be off the ground for months, would aggregate homeowners and business owners who want to use city-arranged financing. The city would borrow the funds through a bank or bond, which homeowners or business owners would pay back over 20 years through property taxes. 

In principle, it would cost the group less to borrow through the city than individually through a bank, although, by waiting, homeowners could lose tax credits now available, DeSnoo said.  

“I wonder why [the idea] didn’t come to us,” said Commissioner Gerry Abrams. 

Commissioner Jane Bergen agreed and asked, “How could they put it forward [prematurely]?”  

While Commissioner Bruce Chamberlain said he too was concerned about process, he underscored the value of the financing district. “This is a huge win,” he said. 

DeSnoo defended Mayor Tom Bates’ office, saying the council had approved the concept. However, a look at the mayor’s website shows that DeVries announced the plan in a press statement Oct. 23 and that the council approved it two weeks later, on Nov. 6. 

DeVries “shouldn’t be making policy,” Bergen said. “Some individual had an idea and suddenly it became policy.” 

An active member of the League of Women Voters, Bergen said she was concerned with policy made behind closed doors. The LWV believes that “the accountability of government should not be tampered with,” she said. 

Commissioner Josh Kornbluth said he understood that “experts” might feel the need to move quickly, but underscored, “It’s also vastly important [to honor] the responsibility to be democratic.”  

DeVries did not return a Daily Planet call for comment by deadline. 


Preliminary Greenhouse Gas  

Reduction plan unveiled 

Several commissioners criticized a portion of the preliminary draft of the city’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases, which they reviewed at the meeting Wednesday. 

The report, written by consultant Timothy Burroughs and DeSnoo, will be presented in draft form to the City Council in January, then submitted in final form for adoption in the spring.  

The question commissioners debated was whether to have a top-down or bottom-up approach to greenhouse gas reduction.  

DeSnoo argued: “You prime the pump to draw others in,” working with a limited number of users to greatly reduce emissions, rather than working with the entire community to achieve small reductions. 

“Leaders will go to near zero [emissions],” DeSnoo said, adding that they will be known as “true Berkeley heroes.” 

The plan targets “early adopters to lead by demonstrating leading edge solutions such as zero energy buildings.” These leaders will create new expectations in green building, and “existing programs will be expanded and new programs developed to increase the availability of advanced energy practices to the mass market.”  

“This is the only possible way to get to 80 percent [reduction by 2050],” DeSnoo said, arguing for the “cutting edge” approach, aimed at reaching 25 percent of Berkeley energy users. “Twenty-five percent is a huge penetration,” he said. 

Bergen, however, said the program should be directed to the average Berkeley resident, she said. “We’re not the Lawrence Berkeley Lab,” she argued. “We need to start with something that people feel they can get their hands on, that people feel they can be a part of.” 

Commissioner Scott Murtishaw argued that the approach on the ground level with the homeowners needs to be efficient. Rather than an individual going into a home to pitch lighting efficiency, that person should be “somebody who looks at the whole home,” whether windows fit in their frames and are double-paned, whether a rebate on an energy-efficient furnace is available and more. 

Funds for a range of efficiencies would be available through the proposed financing district, DeSnoo said. 

Commissioner Tim Hansen added another element. “I don’t see social justice in the conversation,” he said, asking how renters and Section 8 people could be included in the mix. 

The draft proposes that the city look at incentives for landlords to install efficient energy and water systems. The report suggests that an increase in rent, to pay for the efficiencies, would be limited to “the monthly cost savings tenants experience on their energy/water bills as a result of the landlord’s investment in energy saving measures.” 


Community Choice Aggregation  

moves ahead 

While new solar energy and financing initiatives have made large demands on city resources, the Community Choice Aggregation proposal continues to be a high priority for a number of members of the Energy Commission. 

The proposal, which would have to be approved by Berkeley voters, would create a district to combine Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville as an independent entity which would be responsible for supplying energy to the three cities. While PG&E would still own the power lines through which the energy would be distributed, the cities’ joint agency would purchase the power.  

A report from Navigant, the city consultant on the project, is slated to go to the commission in January and to the council in March, according to DeSnoo. 


Whither the Green Corridor? 

Asking why they had not been informed of the collaboration in advance, commissioners said they learned about the “green corridor” plan—a grouping of the mayors of Richmond, Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley, along with UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab—from media reports.  

The collaboration is supposed to benefit green industries and job creation and put the group, as opposed to single cities or agencies, in a favorable position to receive grants, according to news releases on the collaboration. 

DeSnoo said he had not been briefed. “I can’t explain it,” he said, promising to fill the commission in on the details at its January meeting.